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China has informed the United Nations that its space station had to conduct evasive maneuvers in order not to crash with two SpaceX’s internet-beaming Starlink satellites, writes The Verge.

A notification dated Dec. 6 by China under Article V of the Outer Space Treaty stated that the Tianhe space station module conducted preventive collision avoidance due to close approaches by the Starlink-1095 (2020-001BK) and Starlink-2305 (2021-024N) satellites on July 1 and Oct. 21 respectively.

China sent the complaint on December the 6th and it consists of information about two instances on July 1st, 2020 and on October 21st, 2021 when the space station had to rapidly change the point to avoid the trajectory of two separate Starlink satellites. The three Chinese astronauts currently living on Tianhe had just arrived at the station several days before the October maneuver.

The note from China requested the UN secretary-general to remind others that they should follow the Outer Space Treaty, an international agreement ratified in the 1960s that governs how countries should explore space. This agreement also states that all participating countries should be responsible for all of the actions connected with space, even if it was a commercial company. 

The complaint reads:

China wishes to request the Secretary-General of the United Nations to circulate the above-mentioned information to all States parties to the Outer Space Treaty and bring to their attention that, in accordance with article VI of the Treaty, “States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities…”

Starlink is a SpaceX project that aims to launch nearly 12,000 satellites into low Earth orbit to provide high-speed, low-latency broadband internet across the globe. Within each coverage area, orders are fulfilled on a first-come, first-served basis. Right now there are more than 1,950 Starlink satellites in space, and nearly 1,800 still in orbit, according to satellite tracking

The increasing number of satellites and other spacecraft in space lead to possible collisions. Such concerns appeared when space trackers noticed the tendency for a crowded Earth orbit. In fact, there have already been a couple of reports of satellites having to move out of the way of Starlink vehicles to avoid collisions. SpaceX claims that the company equipped all Starlink satellites with special software that autonomously avoid collisions. If the satellite detects something suspicious it’ll move out of the way on its own. 

Starlink satellites typically orbit at around 550 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, but the pair had lowered their altitudes to 382 kilometers. China claims it couldn’t measure out which way the second satellite was flying as it was continuously maneuvering. 

Such a situation is not unique. The International Space Station had to avoid the collision with debris from a Russian satellite that blew up nearby the ISS. It was a result of an ASAT test that has created thousands of pieces of debris that initially threatened the space station. China is also responsible for some of the International Space Station’s collision avoidance maneuvers. In 2007, China destroyed one of its own satellites during an ASAT test, creating thousands of pieces of debris. Many of those pieces are still in orbit, and the ISS has periodically had to move out of the way to avoid these leftovers over the last decade. Now with its own space station in orbit, China is getting a taste of what that experience is like.

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