Beijing: Beijing on Tuesday accused the United States of irresponsible and unsafe behavior in space over two “close encounters” between China’s space station and satellites operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Tiangong, China’s new space station, had to maneuver to avoid colliding with a Starlink satellite in July and another in October, according to a memo Beijing submitted to the United Nations Space Agency this month.
The note said the incidents “posed threats to the lives or health of astronauts aboard the China Space Station.”
“The US … ignores its obligations under international treaties and poses a serious threat to the life and safety of astronauts,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a routine briefing on Tuesday.
Starlink, a division of SpaceX, operates a constellation of nearly 2,000 satellites aimed at bringing internet access to most parts of the world.
SpaceX is a private American company, independent of the US military and civil space agency NASA.
But China said in its note to the UN that members of the Outer Space Treaty – the basis of international outer space law – are also accountable for the actions of their non-governmental organizations.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price contacted reporters and declined to respond specifically to the Chinese allegations.
“We have encouraged all countries with space programs to be responsible actors and avoid actions that could endanger astronauts, cosmonauts and others orbiting or capable of doing so,” Price said.
SpaceX has not responded to a request for comment.
Evasive maneuvers to reduce the risk of collisions in space are becoming more common as more objects enter Earth orbit, said Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“We’ve really noticed that the number of tight passes has increased since Starlink was deployed,” he said AFP.
Any collision would likely “completely destroy” the Chinese space station, killing everyone on board, McDowell added.
The core module of China’s Tiangong station – meaning “heavenly palace” – entered orbit earlier this year and is expected to be fully operational next year.
“Prepare to Boycott Tesla”
Beijing’s complaint about Starlink sparked criticism on Chinese social media of SpaceX’s billionaire founder Musk, who is widely admired in China.
A hashtag on the topic on the Twitter-like Weibo platform was viewed 90 million times as of Tuesday.
“How ironic that Chinese people would buy Tesla and contribute large sums of money to enable Musk to launch Starlink and then he (almost) crashes into China’s space station,” commented one user.
Musk’s electric car maker Tesla sells tens of thousands of vehicles each month in China, although the company’s reputation has taken a hit this year following a series of accidents, scandals and data security concerns.
“Prepare to boycott Tesla,” said another Weibo user, echoing a common Chinese response to foreign brands seen as going against national interests.
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