China earlier this month submitted a complaint against SpaceX to the UN, claiming that the company’s Starlink satellites have twice forced it to adjust the orbit of its space station to avoid a collusion.
The note said the incidents “constituted dangers to the life or health of astronauts aboard the China Space Station”.
“The U.S. … ignores its obligations under international treaties, posing a serious threat to the lives and safety of astronauts,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a routine briefing on Tuesday.
The story became news today because there was suddenly a flurry of outrage against SpaceX on Chinese social media, responding to Lijian’s statement, with much of it very likely astroturf posts prompted by the Chinese government itself.
This announcement likely signals that China is getting ready to launch the next module to that station. During that launch the large core stage of the Long March 5B rocket will reach orbit, but only for a few days. It will then crash uncontrolled somewhere on Earth. The Chinese government knows it is going to get a lot of bad press because of this fact, and is likely making this complaint to try to excuse its own bad actions.
The two issues however are not the same. Satellite orbits are very predictable, and any maneuvers required by China to avoid Starlink satellites were very routine. Moreover, if necessary SpaceX can adjust its own satellite orbits to avoid a collusion.
The crash of the Long March 5B core stage however is due entirely to a bad design that does not allow for any controlled maneuvers. Once the stage’s engines shut down after delivering the station module into orbit, they cannot be restarted, as designed. The stage must fall to Earth in an unpredictable manner, threatening every spot it flies over during that orbital decay.
At this time the actual launch date for that Long March 5B launch, carrying the next station module, has not been announced. The astronauts on the station just completed their second spacewalk, doing work to prepare for the arrival of the next module. Its arrival can’t be too far in the future, and this complaint by China today suggests it will be sooner rather than later. When it happens China will face a flurry of justified criticism, and the Xi government likely plans to use this UN complaint then to deflect that criticism.
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