China proposes formal lines of communication with U.S. on space safety

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WASHINGTON — The Chinese government is open to establishing formal lines of communication with the United States on space safety issues after a pair of alleged close calls of Starlink satellites with China’s space station.

At a Feb. 10 press conference, Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reiterated claims the country made to the United Nations in December that it had to maneuver its space station twice in 2021 to avoid close approaches by SpaceX Starlink satellites.

“China was fulfilling the international obligation stipulated by Article V of the Outer Space Treaty by informing the U.N. of the Starlink satellites’ dangerous approach to the Chinese space station that threatened the safety of in-orbit Chinese astronauts,” he said according to a government transcript, adding that the “in-orbit Chinese astronauts were facing real and urgent safety threats.”

China filed its notice with the U.N., he said, after failing to hear U.S. officials. “After the incidents, China’s competent authorities tried multiple times to reach the U.S. side via e-mail, but received no reply,” he said.

The U.S. government, though, tells a different story. In its own note verbale filed with the U.N., dated Jan. 28 and published by the U.N.’s Office for Outer Space Affairs Feb. 3, the U.S. says it never heard from the Chinese government about the close approaches by satellites designated Starlink-1095 and Starlink-2305.

“The United States is unaware of any contact or attempted contact by China with the United States Space Command, the operators of Starlink-1095 and Starlink-2305 or any other United States entity to share information or concerns about the stated incidents prior to the note verbale from China to the Secretary General,” the Permanent Mission of the U.S. to the U.N. in Vienna said in the document.

The statement added that analysis by the U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron found no evidence of a close approach by either Starlink satellite to China’s space station that met “the threshold of established emergency collision criteria,” thus “emergency notifications were not warranted in either case.” Had such approaches met those criteria, “the United States would have provided a close approach notification directly to the designated Chinese point of contact.”

Getting in touch with Chinese officials has been difficult in the past. “We don’t know exactly who to contact on the Chinese side,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, during a panel at the AIAA ASCEND conference in November. He said SpaceX checks for close approaches of its Starlink satellites with the International Space Station and China’s space station.

While notifications of close approaches with the ISS are straightforward, SpaceX has had to work with the State Department and other U.S. government agencies on getting notifications to China. “We provide information to the State Department, but I don’t know what happens after,” he said.

“I’ll just say it’s very complicated and very cumbersome,” added Mark Mulholland, chief engineer for space traffic management and space situational awareness at the Office of Space Commerce, on the same panel.

At the Feb. 10 press conference, Zhou said China was open to more formal lines of communication with the U.S. on space safety. “With a view to protecting the safety of Chinese astronauts and space station, the Chinese side stands ready to establish a long-term communication mechanism with the U.S. side and hopes that the U.S. will take concrete measures to prevent such incident from happening again,” he said.

The American note verbale does not state how close either Starlink satellite was predicted to come to the space station before China maneuvered the station, and independent analyses have not offered consensus on how close either approach was to the station. A study by COMSPOC found that Starlink satellites account for only about 7% of all close approaches with China’s space station, with the majority coming from debris, including from China’s own anti-satellite weapon test in 2007.

“These findings suggest that Starlink spacecraft do not place undue flight safety burden on the Tiangong Space Station crew or their flight dynamics staff as compared to other active spacecraft that transit Tiangong’s orbit altitude band,” COMSPOC’s Dan Oltrogge and Sal Alfano concluded in their Jan. 3 assessment. “However, the data highlight the importance of sharing orbit and maneuver information” as recommended by the U.N.’s guidelines for long-term space sustainability.