Chinese officials want to hold the United States responsible for space titan Elon Musk's activities following “two close encounters” with SpaceX satellites in low-Earth orbit.
“The U.S. should respect international order in space based on international law, take prompt measures to prevent such incidents from recurring, and act responsibly to safeguard the safety of in-orbit astronauts and the safe and steady operation of space facilities,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Tuesday.
The incidents took place in July and October, according to the diplomat, and required the Chinese-built Tiangong space station to maneuver out of the path of Musk’s satellites, which are part of the Starlink network that he hopes will provide high-speed internet access around the world. China brought the issue into the diplomatic arena this month, reportedly lodging a complaint at the United Nations.
“The U.S. claims to be a strong advocate for the concept of ‘responsible behavior in outer space,’ but it disregarded its treaty obligations and posed a grave threat to the safety of astronauts,” Zhao said. “This is typical double standard.”
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That complaint comes weeks after a Russian anti-satellite test involved shooting down a Soviet-era satellite, thereby creating a plume of space debris that threatened the International Space Station, according to U.S. officials. Zhao declined to rebuke Russia in the wake of that incident. “It is too early to make any comment,” he said on Nov. 16 of the incident, which mirrored an anti-satellite weapons test conducted by China in 2007.
Still, Musk’s rivals note that China’s complaint isn’t the first of its kind. The European Space Agency had to move a satellite out of Starlink’s path in 2019. ESA officials underscored that "it is very rare to perform collision-avoidance maneuvers with active satellites,” but they explained that SpaceX lacked a “plan to take action” to avoid a collision.
“The sad part about this episode is that it's the Chinese complaining, and they have very little credibility because of what they did in low-Earth orbit, blowing up a satellite,” a space industry executive told the Washington Examiner. “But there are others who are just as cross about this issue. Many of them are legitimate, play-by-the-rules Western operators who do not like what Elon's doing."
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SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s team offered no “specific reaction” on Tuesday to the Chinese complaint.
“We have encouraged all countries with space programs to be responsible actors, to avoid acts that may put in danger astronauts, cosmonauts, others who are orbiting the Earth or who have the potential to,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.