The core module of the China Space Station (CSS) was launched into space in April 2021. In July and October 2021, two SpaceX Starlink satellites suddenly dropped from a low earth orbit of 500km and 555km, respectively, into the CSS’s path. The CSS made an emergency manoeuvre to avoid a collision. China condemned the United States at the United Nations, claiming the incident threatened the CSS and its astronauts.
There are two popular explanations as to why the incident occurred. One is that it was an accident, as SpaceX actively deorbits its satellites at the end of their lives. A Starlink satellite nearly collided with a European Space Agency’s meteorological satellite in 2019 after testing its automatic deorbiting technology. The alternative explanation is that it was a deliberate act by the US military.
Whatever the reason, Washington should not use the pretext of ‘corporate behaviour’ to shirk its responsibility for the actions of SpaceX as a signatory of the outer space treaty.
China’s note to the UN is a reminder that the United States needs to be a responsible space power. In a submission to the UN in 2022, Washington claimed that the possibility of a collision was tiny because of Starlink’s automatic evasion system — the efficacy of which has been questioned by China. Besides increasing the risk of spacecraft collision, the irresponsible behaviour of Starlink satellites in low earth orbit also threatens the safety of astronauts from Japan, the United States, Russia and China.
Starlink is a plan to seize low earth orbit resources as one of its main objects. Relying on recyclable rockets and its ability to launch multiple satellites with one rocket, SpaceX has launched cheap satellites, whose technology has not fully matured, in low-cost batches justified by the ‘public welfare’ gained from having access to high-speed broadband internet. The US Federal Communications Commission has granted SpaceX permission to fly 12,000 Starlink satellites.
SpaceX plans to send up to 42,000 Starlink satellites into low earth orbit, most likely taking up over 80 per cent of low earth orbit resources. Other countries may have to spend a great deal of money to buy low earth orbit resources occupied by SpaceX in the future. The situation will deteriorate should the company refuse to sell its resources or refuse to disclose plans to change their satellites’ orbits under the pretext of protecting trade secrets.
This bizarre incident may have hidden military purposes. Some launch sites are built in Vandenberg Air Force Base of the US, and the technical verification test is included in the content of confidential interconnection between satellites and Air Force fighters. In 2019, SpaceX received funding from the US air force to test the encrypted Internet services between the Starlink satellites and military aircraft. In May 2020, the US Army signed an agreement with SpaceX to test the use of Starlink broadband for cross military network data transmission. In October 2020, SpaceX won a $150 million contract to develop a military version of the Starlink.
The latest Starlink incident will further enhance China’s awareness of space defence — potentially triggering a space race between Beijing and Washington to seize low earth orbit resources. China has over the last few years been trying to integrate earlier satellite constellations (around 600 satellites) into a state-owned satellite communication network on a scale far smaller than the Starlink plan.
Private enterprises are improving their competitiveness, with Huawei’s satellite networking plan and Deep Blue Aerospace’s breakthrough in rocket recovery technology changing the industry. China proposed its own ‘Space-Ground Integrated Information Network’ in 2022 to integrate existing space assets, mobile networks and future telecommunications.
Facing fierce international competition for low earth orbit resources, institutional measures need to be taken to ensure that China, the United States and private stakeholders can cooperate to achieve space security.
Countries should strengthen the management of global low earth orbit resources. A specialised UN agency should be created to revise the previous ‘first come, first served’ principle for space resources. They should also partially restrict the arbitrary occupation of low earth orbit resources that occurs when enterprises and institutions launch massive satellites without constraints. Those responsible for threatening the safety of astronauts should be included in a list for condemnation — with provisions for appropriate economic sanctions.
Private space companies should be obligated to uphold the ‘space order’. NASA outlined its concerns about the SpaceX proposal in February 2022, yet nothing was done to improve the satellite’s faulty automatic collision avoidance mechanism. In response to this, countries should strengthen shared risk management strategies and maintain the stable operation of space facilities to help private space companies avoid these incidents and reshape the Chinese–US space competition.
Space stakeholders should formulate guidelines for international cooperation in outer space. These universal guidelines should refer to a set of operational instructions clarifying the obligations of one country’s spacecraft when approaching another country’s spacecraft — including the timely prediction of collision risk, disclosure of necessary information and active communication with other space agencies.
Following these regulations will help promote Chinese–US cooperation in space security. In common space orbit, all parties should abide by the ‘traffic rules’ and refrain from rampaging through space.
Zhang Zhihui is Associate Professor at the Institute for History of Natural Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.