When they were launched, the first satellites of Starlink, the company created by Elon Musk, had already caused concern among professional and amateur astronomers. The light reflected by the latter threatened space observation. But now, the constellation of satellites placed in low orbit (550 km from the earth’s surface) and intended to provide an internet connection in remote areas is also angering China.
According to Chinese authorities, the space station launched by the Asian giant had to carry out evasive maneuvers twice, in July and October, to avoid colliding with American satellites. The main module of the station was put into orbit this year and its construction is due to be completed in 2022. The Chinese government took the matter to the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna in early December, accusing the United States United to pose a “serious threat” to its astronauts and to “fail in their international obligations”.
If the Chinese authorities have not targeted Elon Musk by name, the latter has been the target of comments from angry Internet users on Chinese social networks. “It’s not without irony: the Chinese are buying Teslas, giving money to Musk to launch (satellites) and throw them against the Chinese space station”, pointed out a Weibo user, the equivalent Twitter Chinese. These incidents have tarnished the image of the billionaire of South African origin while his firm Tesla sells a quarter of the electric cars it produces there.
Tens of thousands of satellites
The Starlink satellite constellation is one of Elon Musk’s main projects, alongside Tesla electric cars and SpaceX spaceflight. Since the first launch in 2019, around 1,900 satellites have been put into orbit under this program. The launches take place approximately every two weeks at the rate of fifty devices per launch. The latest was on December 18.
In 2021 alone, Starlink has put more than 800 satellites into orbit, and plans to reach, in stages, 12,000, then 42,000 objects in orbit. The company claims to have fixed the problem of reflected light from its satellites by modifying their flight to join or leave their orbit, and adding a visor so that sunlight does not hit the most reflective parts of the craft. But the mass of satellites in orbit poses the problem of collisions with other objects, especially since several constellation projects are being deployed. According to the Astronautics Research Group at Britain’s University of Southampton, Elon Musk’s satellites are involved in around 1,600 close encounters (less than a kilometer) between two spacecraft each week, or half of all such incidents .
Each space collision between massive objects results in the creation of thousands of smaller pieces of debris which can themselves cause damage to other objects in flight. This phenomenon is called Kessler syndrome, and from a number of debris, near-Earth space could be inaccessible for several generations.
A diplomatic issue
In mid-November, this problem attracted world attention after a test firing of an anti-satellite missile by Russia on one of its old devices still in orbit. The destruction of the object caused the creation of a cloud of debris threatening the International Space Station.
Despite its criticisms, China is no stranger to the problem. In 2007, the country also fired an anti-satellite missile, causing a lot of debris.
In its note to the Office for Outer Space Affairs, China refers to Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty concluded in 1967, which states that “States parties to the Treaty have international responsibility for national activities in the outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether undertaken by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities”. This provision explains why it is the US government that is targeted and not Elon Musk’s firm.
In fact, agreements on space are not respected and there is no means of coercion to enforce them. At the beginning of November, several resolutions intended to prevent the militarization of space were adopted by the United Nations. One of these proposals came from China and Russia, but several Western countries had rejected it, considering that it was not precise enough.