U.S. Denies Allegations That Starlink Satellites Had Close Encounters with Chinese Space Station

Shenzhou 13 launches to Tiangong space station.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The U.S. had denied claims that a pair of SpaceX Starlink satellites came close to hitting the Chinese space station last year.

“Because the activities did not meet the threshold of established emergency collision criteria, emergency notifications were not warranted in either case,” the U.S. said is a note verbale sent to the United Nations. “If there had been a significant probability of collision involving the China Space Station, the United States would have provided a close approach notification directly to the designated Chinese point of contact.

“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 document added.

In a note verbale filed on Dec. 3, China said it had to maneuver its space station to avoid a possible collision with the Starlink-1095 satellite on July 1, 2021. It also said it moved the station again on Oct. 21 to avoid another close encounter with the Starlink-2305 satellite.

During a press conference on Feb. 10, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian claimed that officials did try to contact the United States after the incidents.

“After the incidents, China’s competent authorities tried multiple times to reach the US side via e-mail, but received no reply. Now the US attempts to use the so-called threshold of emergency collision criteria to shift responsibilities and deflect attention. It is not showing a responsible attitude as a space power. Moreover, it is in no position to unilaterally set a threshold of emergency collision criteria,” he said.

Excerpts from the U.S. and Chinese note verbales as well as Zhao Lijian press conference follow.

Note verbale dated 28 January 2022 from the Permanent Mission of the United States of America to the United Nations (Vienna) addressed to the Secretary-General
Selected Excerpts

As a key part of this commitment, the Government of the United States conducts screenings of all active space objects for potential on-orbit collisions. The United States Space Command is currently the lead organization of the Government of the United States for supporting safe space operations through the monitoring and cataloguing of all activity to, in and from space.

  • In cases where a potential collision hazard is calculated, the United States Space Command – through the United States Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron – provides relevant analysis to all affected spacecraft operators, including to China, to support their decisions on collision-avoidance manoeuvres.
  • Since November 2014, the United States has provided spaceflight safety information to the Government of China, including emergency notifications of high-risk collision hazards between crewed and robotic Chinese spacecraft and other space objects.
  • In the specific instances cited in the note verbale from China to the Secretary-General, the United States Space Command did not estimate a significant probability of collision between the China Space Station and the referenced United States spacecraft:
    • Starlink-1095 (2020-001BK) on 1 July 2021
    • Starlink-2305 (2021-024N) on 21 October 2021
    • Because the activities did not meet the threshold of established emergency collision criteria, emergency notifications were not warranted in either case.
    • If there had been a significant probability of collision involving the China Space Station, the United States would have provided a close approach notification directly to the designated Chinese point of contact.
    • 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.

Note verbale dated 3 December 2021 from the Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations (Vienna) addressed to the Secretary-General
Selected Excerpts

During this period, Starlink satellites launched by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) of the United States of America have had two close encounters with the China Space Station. For safety reasons, the China Space Station implemented preventive collision avoidance control on 1 July and 21 October 2021, respectively.

  1. The first collision avoidance

As from 19 April 2020, the Starlink-1095 satellite had been travelling stably in orbit at an average altitude of around 555 km. Between 16 May and 24 June 2021, the Starlink-1095 satellite manoeuvred continuously to an orbit of around 382 km, and then stayed in that orbit. A close encounter occurred between the Starlink-1095 satellite and the China Space Station on 1 July 2021. For safety reasons, the China Space Station took the initiative to conduct an evasive manoeuvre in the evening of that day to avoid a potential collision between the two spacecraft.

  1. The second collision avoidance

On 21 October 2021, the Starlink-2305 satellite had a subsequent close encounter with the China Space Station. As the satellite was continuously manoeuvring, the manoeuvre strategy was unknown and orbital errors were hard to be assessed, there was thus a collision risk between the Starlink-2305 satellite and the China Space Station. To ensure the safety and lives of in-orbit astronauts, the China Space Station performed an evasive manoeuvre again on the same day to avoid a potential collision between the two spacecraft.

In view of the foregoing, China wishes to request the Secretary-General of the United Nations to circulate the above-mentioned information to all States parties to the Outer Space Treaty and bring to their attention that, in accordance with article VI of the Treaty, “States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty.”

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s Regular Press Conference on February 10, 2022
Selected Excerpts

Phoenix TV: According to reports, the US denied China’s notion that Starlink satellites endangered the China Space Station twice in a note sent to the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs in Vienna dated January 28. It said, “Because the activities did not meet the threshold of established emergency collision criteria, emergency notifications were not warranted in either case”. The US note also said China had not raised to US competent authorities concerns about the danger posed by the Starlink satellites before China sent the note to the UN. What is China’s response?

Zhao Lijian: China was fulfilling the international obligation stipulated by Article V of the Outer Space Treaty by informing the UN of the Starlink satellites’ dangerous approach to the Chinese space station that threatened the safety of in-orbit Chinese astronauts. In the incidents of preventive collision avoidance, the Starlink satellites were continuously maneuvering with unspecified maneuvering strategies and intentions while in-orbit Chinese astronauts were facing real and urgent safety threats. As a result, the Chinese side was forced to implement preventive collision avoidance control. After the incidents, China’s competent authorities tried multiple times to reach the US side via e-mail, but received no reply. Now the US attempts to use the so-called threshold of emergency collision criteria to shift responsibilities and deflect attention. It is not showing a responsible attitude as a space power. Moreover, it is in no position to unilaterally set a threshold of emergency collision criteria. 

Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty stipulates that in the exploration and use of outer space, States Parties to the Treaty shall be guided by the principle of co-operation and mutual assistance and shall conduct all their activities in outer space with due regard to the corresponding interests of all other States Parties to the Treaty. China has submitted registration of its space station to the UN and released its orbital elements on website. 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 US side and hopes that the US will take concrete measures to prevent such incident from happening again. China also hopes that all countries will respect the international system in outer space based on international law and jointly safeguard the life and safety of astronauts and the safe and stable operation of space facilities in orbit.