Thursday, September 29, 2022

Fearing ‘Space Station Collision’, Chinese Security Expert Proposes Hotline With America’s NASA & SpaceX

A former missile engineer with the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation has proposed that Beijing should consider establishing communication channels with SpaceX and NASA, perhaps a hotline, to avoid collisions in space.

Wu Riqiang, currently an associate professor at Renmin University’s School of International Studies, has also dismissed the allegation that the US military attempted to spy on China after SpaceX’s Starlink satellites came close to the Chinese space station in July and October 2021, the South China Morning Post reported.

In a study published in a Chinese foreign ministry journal, Wu described the near-collision with Space X satellites as “more like incidental technical accidents”. 

Concerns about such crashes were raised in December when Beijing claimed that two SpaceX satellites’ “close encounters” had taken place in July and October.

It alleged at the time that astronauts on China’s Tiangong space station had to perform emergency measures to prevent potential collision with the Starlink satellites. However, the US and Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, disputed these reports. 

China's Tiangong Space Station
Artist’s rendering of China’s Tiangong Space Station. (Wikimedia Commons)

As part of the 2014 China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a major attempt by then-President Barack Obama to recalibrate ties with Beijing, space authorities of the two nations coordinate via email.

“It goes without saying that the astronauts’ safety is the highest priority of the manned space program,” Wu wrote, proposing the installation of a hotline. “Operating a long-term manned space station is a completely new topic for China, and establishing a collision-avoidance mechanism to prevent similar dangerous approach events from happening again will be an extremely important and very urgent task.”

Why US-China Cooperation Is Vital 

SpaceX’s satellite-based internet service, Starlink, went live in a beta version late last year. The corporation has already deployed a huge number of small satellites and wants to deploy many more in order to attain adequate coverage.

Scientists have previously stated that Starlink satellites are responsible for over half of close encounters in orbit. 

Despite regulations prohibiting NASA from utilizing any federal funding to cooperate with the Chinese government, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk previously called for at least “some amount of cooperation” between the US space agency and China.

The Wolf Amendment, passed by Congress in 2011, significantly limits any bilateral cooperation with the Chinese government in an effort to combat espionage, thereby portraying China as a space rival.

Nevertheless, in 2015, China and the United States had formed a new space communication mechanism, and in 2016, authorities from the US State Department and China’s foreign ministry met for the first time to discuss space security. However, this appears to be in a dormant state, as no meeting has been held since 2017.

Starlink satellites
60 Starlink satellites stacked together before deployment on May 24, 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

In a first, Beijing revealed last month that it had begun publishing basic orbital locations of its space station on the website of the China Manned Space Office, the central organization in charge of crewed missions.

NASA and the US Space Force have expertise in dealing with collision risks and consequences. According to Wu, China is a latecomer to space exploration and hence lacks experience in sharing precise space mission data. This could also explain why Beijing did not respond quickly to the two Starlink instances and filed a protest months later, he added.

In March 2021, SpaceX and NASA had signed a data-sharing agreement for space flight safety, outlining the rules, responsibilities, and processes for orbital locations and maneuver plans coordination. Wu suggests China and the US should work together to create a similar framework.

NASA also expects SpaceX, which has at least 1,260 satellites in orbit, to organize Starlink launches to be at least 5 kilometers above or below the highest and lowest points of the International Space Station, as outlined in the agreement.

According to Wu, Beijing may have to adopt the US’s emergency collision criteria and reveal the orbital data of its space station in order to build a similar procedure. China, like NASA, may ask SpaceX to notify the Chinese space agency prior to each Starlink launch so that Beijing may decide if the mission poses any collision hazards.

That said, there are increasing demands for resumption of space dialogues between the US and China, amid concerns that any mishap could lead to a major conflict between the two arch-rivals. 

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