SpaceX issues explanation for nonresponse in potential satellite collision issue


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SpaceX today issued an explanation for why it had not responded when ESA officials had asked them to change the orbit of one of its Starlink smallsats to protect against a possible collision with ESA’s Aeolus spacecraft.

SpaceX, in a statement Sept. 3, said it was aware of a potential conjunction Aug. 28 and communicated with ESA. At that time, though, the threat of a potential collision was only about 1 in 50,000, below the threshold where a maneuver was warranted. When refined data from the U.S. Air Force increased the probability to within 1 in 1,000, “a bug in our on-call paging system prevented the Starlink operator from seeing the follow on correspondence on this probability increase,” a company spokesperson told SpaceNews.

“SpaceX is still investigating the issue and will implement corrective actions,” the spokesperson said of the glitch. “However, had the Starlink operator seen the correspondence, we would have coordinated with ESA to determine best approach with their continuing with their maneuver or our performing a maneuver.”

This incident increasingly strikes me as a tempest in a teapot created by ESA for any number of reasons, including their overall dislike of SpaceX (for generally making all government-run space programs look foolish). There is also this quote from an ESA official in the article above:

“The case just showed that, in the absence of traffic rules and communication protocols, collision avoidance has to rely on the pragmatism of the involved operators,” Krag said. “This is done today by exchange of emails. Such a process is not viable any longer with the increase of space traffic.” He said that, if the Space Safety initiative is funded, ESA would like to demonstrate automated maneuver coordination by 2023. [emphasis mine]

I can just see ESA officials drooling with eager anticipation the coming of more “traffic rules and communication protocols,” partly inspired by this fake crisis they just created. Imposing more rules and getting increased funding is what they do best, since it certainly isn’t exploring space with creative and efficient innovation.

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6 comments

  • pzatchok

    “If the Space Safety initiative is funded, ESA would like to demonstrate automated maneuver coordination by 2023.”

    What they actually mean is “we would like to fudge data uploaded to the automated system so that we could force the early retirement of other peoples satellites by using more of their fuel instead of ours.”

    If you control the input you control the output.

    If they can not see exactly where the stuff in orbit is maybe someone better put up a few radar satellites to increase the accuracy of these predictions. Then charge each orbital operator nation an equitable fee for the service.

    And as for email being the primary form of communication now. I am imminently familiar with this problem. In the company I work for ALL the engineers think email is the only and best form of communication with a customers engineers. We just end up waiting weeks for a 5 minute answer they could and finally do get when they call on the phone and actually talk to someone. I am not even an engineer and they gave me an email. Now I spend significant time logging on, reading a bunch of nonsense emails to find the few I need to answer to, then answer those few emails. I must spend a hour a day doing stupid non productive email work every day. And now I have outside suppliers and customers emailing me and expecting me to answer them.
    Just pick up a real phone and talk to someone if its that important.
    I have expressed this frustration with my bosses and they just look at me like I have a second head. I understand the need for permanent records that email provides now but nothing is stopping you from using a phone also.

  • mpthompson

    Seems that SpaceX screwed up just enough to provide ESA an opportunity to grandstand. Not that they seemed eager…

  • ” . . . this fake crisis they just created.”

    Micheal Crichton’s novel “Swarm” went a ways toward crystallizing this for me. A good story, if preachy. Not as bad as Heinlein’s later work ( I’ve tried ‘The Cat Who Walks Through Walls’ four times), but still.

    pzatchok: good point concerning ESA.

  • wodun

    “This is done today by exchange of emails. Such a process is not viable any longer with the increase of space traffic.”

    Near instantaneous communication isn’t cutting it?

    I get an email the same as I get text message or phone call, neatly delivered to my phone where I am notified of its presence. And why wold they do an email instead of just picking up the phone?

  • Edward

    I think that many of the comments here have hit on the basic problem. The ESA did not consider this a large enough problem to attempt alternate means of communication when their “primary” means failed to hail a response.

    Strangely, they now seem to think it is a large problem now that the urgency has passed.

    I am going to suggest that the ESA’s procedures for this type of situation are lacking. If they chose to use their own thrusters rather than increase their attempts at communication, then that shows us their priorities. They prefer solving the problem themselves over communicating with another operator.

    However, what I have written may be incorrect, because we have two different accounts of the incident. Forbes reported,* “the risk of collision between the two satellites was 1 in 1,000 – ten times higher than the threshold that requires a collision avoidance maneuver. However, despite Aeolus occupying this region of space nine months before Starlink 44, SpaceX declined to move their satellite after the two were alerted to the impact risk by the U.S. military, who monitor space traffic. ‘Based on this we informed SpaceX, who replied and said that they do not plan to take action,’ says Krag [head of the Space Debris Office at ESA]

    From the Space News article in this post, above, SpaceX replied: “SpaceX, in a statement Sept. 3, said it was aware of a potential conjunction Aug. 28 and communicated with ESA. At that time, though, the threat of a potential collision was only about 1 in 50,000, below the threshold where a maneuver was warranted. When refined data from the U.S. Air Force increased the probability to within 1 in 1,000, ‘a bug in our on-call paging system prevented the Starlink operator from seeing the follow on correspondence on this probability increase,’

    Although the bug in the paging system is SpaceX’s problem, it seems that from SpaceX’s point of view ESA did not make urgent attempts to communicate directly with SpaceX once the maneuver threshold was reached, but Forbes’s version strongly suggests that SpaceX declined a maneuver after learning of the increased likelihood of collision.

    If Forbes’s account is the more correct description of events then SpaceX may be the bad guy in this story, but if Forbes’s account is misleading then by not presenting the whole of events, Forbes has been unfair in its report.

    Also from the article linked in this post: “‘The case just showed that, in the absence of traffic rules and communication protocols, collision avoidance has to rely on the pragmatism of the involved operators,’ Krag said. ‘This is done today by exchange of emails. Such a process is not viable any longer with the increase of space traffic.’

    How long has this method of email exchange been unpractical, due to the larger space traffic? It is a good thing that they discovered this when there was no collision. Then again, is the email exchange method only done by ESA or does the entire satellite-operator community use only emails?

    * see the Forbes article linked here: https://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/points-of-information/spacex-declines-to-shift-starlink-satellite-to-avoid-collision/

  • wayne

    The Truth Behind ESA & SpaceX’s Close Encounter
    Scott Manley 9-5-19
    https://youtu.be/RJcnQq8XDoY
    12:08

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