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Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellites catch heat in China over close calls with space station

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Technology billionaire SpaceX satellites are catching on in the country after Beijing complained that two satellites launched by the American aerospace manufacturer endangered Chinese astronauts.

The two encounters “posed a danger to the life or health of astronauts aboard China’s space station,” according to the report, which said the incidents occurred in July and October.

China filed its complaint with the UN earlier this month. But the episodes did not get widespread attention in the country until this week.

Chinese state media analyzed the incidents, which involved satellites that are part of SpaceX Starlink constellation – a project that promises to transmit high-speed Internet to the entire planet. The Global Times, a state tabloid, quoted an expert On Monday he speculated that SpaceX may have been “trying to test China’s ability and responsiveness in space.”
The topic also attracted some 90 million views on Weibo, a Twitter-like social networking service in China. Users criticized “US Starlink satellites”. A person denounced the network as a “rogue project” and a “kind of monopoly on the space race.” Another accused the United States of “causing problems. “

Asked about the incident on Tuesday, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry called on the United States to “take immediate action to prevent such incidents from happening again.”

It is a typical double standard for the United States to proclaim the concept of “responsible conduct in outer space” while ignoring its obligations under international treaties on outer space and poses a serious threat to life and security. of astronauts, “Zhao Lijian told reporters. .

SpaceX did not respond to a request from CNN Business to comment on the document that China submitted to the UN, or to questions about whether the company was able to contact the Chinese authorities during the incidents.

The UN Office of Space Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNN Business. In its report, China called on UN Secretary-General António Guterres to remind countries of the organization’s treaty governing space activity.

The U.S. military’s Vandenberg space force base, which monitors space traffic and attempts to track possible collisions, did not respond to a request for comment on the UNOOSA report.

A space traffic problem

People in the United States are already using it new Starlink network, and is rapidly expanding around the world as SpaceX launches more Starlink satellites and expands its service to new countries.

SpaceX’s Starlink constellation already includes about 2,000 satellites and promises to far exceed that number.

But that satellite constellation, other similar projects planned and the increase in commercial and government activity in the area has contributed to a growing problem: how to manage space traffic.

Almost accidents between objects in space occur all the time. And the apparent upcoming calls documented in China’s report to the UN may be symptoms of a bigger problem affecting space nations: there is no perfect international solution for tracking and coordinating objects in space.

Concerns about possible collisions are likely to continue to grow and space activities will become more dangerous as humans launch more objects into orbit.
It should also be noted that Russia and China have conducted military anti-satellite tests, or ASAT, which have basically blown satellites into orbit and created massive debris feathers in space. This debris crosses the orbit uncontrollably, threatening any spacecraft, space station or satellite that may cross the path of the debris field.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, noted that the International Space Station has had to maneuver to move away from the debris created by China’s 2007 ASAT test on several occasions in recent years.

In other words, all parties involved share some of the blame for the overcrowding of Earth’s orbit.

“This is another symptom that we are in a new era: a new space age that is much busier and much more tense,” McDowell told CNN Business.

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It is unclear whether the Starlink satellites mentioned in the UN report attempted to move away from China’s space station on their own. During the October meeting, according to China, “the satellite’s maneuvering strategy was unknown and orbital errors were difficult to assess,” caused the space station to evade the satellite. “avoid a possible collision”.

He Starlink website, however, it says that autonomous collision avoidance technology is integrated into their satellites, allowing them to deviate automatically if they detect a possible collision with a piece of space debris, a space station, or any other object. space.

McDowell told CNN Business that based on its data, the Starlink satellite approaching the China space station in July made a slight adjustment to its path that could indicate that the system autonomous worked.

But he added that these systems are not very effective if there is no more coordination.

“If I’m in China, even though I know SpaceX has a standalone system, I don’t know that this time it will work,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s on.”

Musk’s reputation in China

The controversy could damage Musk’s reputation in China.

Musk spent years winning over Chinese authorities and citizens alike while his electric car maker Tesla made raids where other foreign companies could not.

Tesla (TSLA) was the only foreign manufacturer without a local partner to earn a big tax cut for its cars in 2019, and Musk danced on stage during the debut of the Model 3 made in Shanghai earlier last year, which went viral on Weibo. Premier Li Keqiang even once said he would be happy to give Musk a “green card from China” after the US businessman said he “loves China very much.”
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But Musk’s reception in the country has been damaged over the past year by poor publicity, including one remember of virtually every Tesla car that has been built in Shanghai. The company also clashed protests by Telsa owners at this year’s Shanghai Motor Show more poor car quality and various security concerns marked by Chinese regulators.
Musk, who has long shown an affinity for Chinese culture, has been out for a month charming offensive.
In July, he applauded the government on the 100th anniversary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, tweeting: “The economic prosperity that China has achieved is truly incredible, especially in infrastructure! I encourage people to visit and see for themselves.”
This came months after the richest man in the world appeared for a rare interview with a Chinese state broadcaster, praising Beijing and saying that China “would become the largest economy in the world.” Musk also predicted that the country would eventually become Tesla’s largest market.
And his numerous statements have often caused a stir in the country. In November, Musk he cryptically tweeted an ancient Chinese poem which is famous in the country, and which refers to a quarrel between brothers. It quickly became a trending topic on Weibo.

– CNN’s Beijing office contributed to this report.

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