Aerospace experts urged China and the United States to improve communication between the two countries and with companies private on space issues to reduce the risk of accidents.
The claims come in the wake of China’s complaint to the United Nations that its Tiangong space station is exposed to two possible impending incidents with Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellites. The complaint was made on estimates dating back to last year.
Concerns about overcrowding in lower Earth orbit are growing as scientists warn of an increased risk of collisions.
SpaceX’s plans for its Starlink network, which already consists of 1,900 satellites, were in the spotlight, and European Space Agency chief Josef Asbacher warned last month that they could exclude other spacecraft and accused Musk of “establishing the rules”.
Musk rejected tale claim, saying that the space was large enough and that Starlink, which would host up to 42,000 satellites when completed, would not stand in the way of anyone.
“Space is so big, satellites are so small,” Musk told the Financial Times last week. “A few thousand satellites are nothing”.
Starlink is designed to operate in an orbit of about 550 kilometers above the Earth, while Tiangong orbits at an altitude of about 390 kilometers and the International Space Station at an altitude of 410 kilometers.
SpaceX also said its Starlink satellites are equipped with independent orbit change functions to avoid collisions.
But the sheer number of satellites involved, as well as the vast suites of Internet services planned by other companies like Amazon, OneWeb, and Telstar, could mean that the potential for system malfunctions or control errors is too great to ignore.
In the worst case, something wrong could cause a satellite to fall in the path or even collide with the Chinese Space Station or the International Space Station.
The co-directors of the University’s Outer Space Institute of British Columbia, Aaron Polley and Michael Byers, published an article in the journal Nature Portfolio in May that outlines the risks posed by huge star clusters of satellites such as Starlink in the lower Earth orbit and the planet’s atmosphere.
“Some orbits can get crowded, even with collision avoidance maneuvers,” they said last month.
There are currently no rules in space as to who has a “right of way” or what constitutes a “safe” distance, and the incidents that prompted Beijing’s complaint could be due to a lack of proper communication channels or perhaps it wanted the Chinese space station a greater margin of safety.
Co-directors of the Outer Space Institute at the University of British Columbia added: “The only solution is cooperation, because every nation and space pioneer is contributing to the problem and, consequently, all their satellites and space stations are at risk”.
For his part, Wang Juyu, deputy director of the Institute of Space Law at the Beijing Institute of Technology, noted that China’s complaint to the United Nations also included an appeal to the United States to improve communication on space issues.
“Both sides must establish a mechanism for dialogue and coordination in so that China and the US can immediately coordinate on a similar incident in space to deal with it, “Wang said.
He also made it clear that Beijing’s concerns about Starlink could be motivated by the potential military implications of this massive communications network.
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