The European Space Agency (ESA) has published an unusual press release – in the form of a Twitter thread – specifically blaming SpaceX’s nascent Starlink constellation for a collision avoidance maneuver recently performed by Aeolus, a scientific spacecraft in low Earth orbit (LEO). SpaceX reportedly refused to move its Starlink satellite, triggering the maneuver.
SpaceX launched an extensive Starlink beta test on May 23rd, 2019, placing an unprecedented 60 satellites in LEO. Discussed earlier today on Teslarati, 50 of those 60 satellite prototypes have reached their final 550 km (340 mi) orbits and are functioning as intended, while 5 have paused their orbit-raising, 3 have been declared dead, and 2 are intentionally lowering their orbits as an end-of-life simulation.
Update: SpaceX has released an official statement on the matter.
“Our Starlink team last exchanged an email with the Aeolus operations team on August 28, when the probability of collision was only in the 2.2e-5 range (or 1 in 50k), well below the 1e-4 (or 1 in 10k) industry standard threshold and 75 times lower than the final estimate. At that point, both SpaceX and ESA determined a maneuver was not necessary. Then, the U.S. Air Force’s updates showed the probability increased to 1.69e-3 (or more than 1 in 10k) but a bug in our on-call paging system prevented the Starlink operator from seeing the follow on correspondence on this probability increase – SpaceX is still investigating the issue and will implement corrective actions. 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.”
Additionally, Starlink satellites have already reportedly performed 16 autonomous collision avoidance maneuvers (sans human operator interference) and SpaceX confirmed that the satellite ESA was worried about is fully operational while it continues its deorbit maneuver.
On one hand, ESA’s description of events is bizarre and dubious, at points. ESA Operations tweeted that “it is very rare to perform collision avoidance maneuvers with active satellites”, while the very next tweet stated that “ESA performed 28 collision avoidance maneuvers [in 2018]”, meaning that the procedure is roughly biweekly for ESA alone.
Meanwhile, Matt Desch – CEO of Iridium, the owner and operator of one of the largest LEO constellations ever flown – stated that its Iridium NEXT satellites perform similar maneuvers weekly, without the need to “put out a press release to say who [Iridium] maneuvered around”. In simple terms, collision avoidance maneuvers are extremely common and extremely routine and are a fundamental part of operating satellites on orbit – be it one, ten, or ten thousand.
However, spaceflight journalist Jonathan O’Callaghan was told by sources in ESA that the space agency had directly contacted SpaceX with concerns about a possible Starlink-Aeolus collision and the company refused to move their spacecraft in cooperation. This left ESA’s Aeolus to perform the maneuver.
From the perspective of O’Callaghan’s sourced information, SpaceX certainly appears to be in the wrong in this case. However, the current story is extremely patchy, and more information is needed to paint a true-to-life picture of events. Was SpaceX’s refusal to move based on an inability to move one of the two satellites it is intentionally deorbiting? Is the company simply confident in what it has described as a suite of autonomous collision avoidance hardware and software installed on each Starlink satellite?
Either way, if SpaceX actually is/was as terse and uncommunicative as O’Callaghan’s sources have painted the company, it is an extremely bad look. For SpaceX to successfully operate hundreds of Starlink satellites, let alone its constellation’s full ~11,800, good spaceflight stewardship and hand-in-hand cooperation with other major (and minor) operators is an absolute necessity. If SpaceX acts like the bully in the room and simply ignores or avoids cooperation and fails to take responsibility and help maintain current standards of collision avoidance, the company will very quickly find itself surrounded by newly made enemies like ESA.
Teslarati has reached out to SpaceX for comment and will update this article with all relevant information.
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