Science

Elon Musk and China in space conflict over Starlink satellites

The head of SpaceX is accused of negligence with his Starlink satellites. This may just be the beginning of the showdown with China.



Tesla and SpaceX boss Elon Musk on March 9, 2020 at a convention in Washington.


© afp.com/Brendan Smialowski
Tesla and SpaceX boss Elon Musk on March 9, 2020 at a convention in Washington.

Alert over our heads. Twice, on July 1 and October 21, American SpaceX’s Starlink satellites skimmed the Chinese space station Tiangong. On two occasions, the latter performed an evasive maneuver to avoid a possible impact. This is what China reports in a document addressed to the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna and dated December 6. SpaceX has yet to comment on this information. But the Chinese report is primarily aimed at the United States.

“This represents a serious threat to the life and safety of Chinese astronauts,” diplomat spokesman Zhao Lijian criticized the press. And China to request, participating in the UN, respect for the Space Treaty, signed by the two countries. And more particularly Article VI, according to which “the activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, must be subject to authorization and surveillance, continued by the corresponding State Party to the Treaty.” In case of sanction, the United States and not just SpaceX would be the target.

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However, the showdown quickly took a personal turn on Chinese social media. The target: Elon Musk, the boss of SpaceX, but also of Tesla, and a well-known figure on the global internet. “Get ready to boycott Tesla,” said a user of the social network Weibo, using a hashtag viewed more than 87 million times. “There is no shortage of irony: the Chinese are buying Tesla, giving Musk money to launch (satellites) and launch them into the Chinese space station,” thundered another. Because China is a crucial market for the billionaire Canada-United States of South African origin. Tesla sells about a quarter of its production domestically and has a plant in Shanghai. However, the automaker has come under fire in recent months due to accidents and data protection concerns.

This is just the beginning of the story

As a reminder, Starlink’s goal is to bring high-speed Internet from space to the most remote corners of the planet, thanks to constellations of satellites placed in low orbit. Elon Musk is targeting 40 million subscribers by 2025. The service launched in France at the beginning of the year. But from the beginning, scientists have pointed to the high risk of collisions that these devices give rise to in a space already crowded with space debris of all kinds. Sometimes due to malicious interventions by states, such as the Russian anti-satellite missile test last month.

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It is precisely because of this waste – Russian and others – that NASA canceled, at the end of November, an exit to the outside of the International Space Station, shortly before its start. Questioned this time on Twitter, Elon Musk had indicated having “had to move certain orbits of the Starlink satellites to reduce the probability of collision.” “It’s not great, but it’s not a drama either,” he added. Without questioning his program.

To date, approximately 1950 Starlink satellites are in operation and 12,000 are expected to be completed in a few years. Suffice it to say that the concern has not finished growing: Elon Musk has already requested authorization to deploy 30,000 more, bringing the total to around 40,000 devices.

Where does the annoyance from China come from? Other voices point to the double talk of Beijing, one of the main contributors to space waste. The International Space Station “had several occasions during the last decade to avoid pieces of the 2007 Chinese military anti-satellite test,” Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told The Guardian newspaper. Neither more nor less than “the biggest debris event ever was the Chinese antisatellite test.” “It’s not that the Chinese have never done anything.”

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