Elon Musk Denies His Satellites Are Hogging Space

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A stack of flat Starlink satellites prepares to deploy in Earth orbit. Image credit: SpaceX

Space is enormous and satellites are tiny says Musk, after China complaint earlier this week of near miss with its space station

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has defended his Starlink satellites after it emerged earlier this week that China had filed an complaint against the firm.

Earlier this week, Beijing alleged in its complaint to the United Nations, that satellites from Starlink Internet Services, a division of SpaceX, had two “close encounters” with the Chinese space station on 1 July and 21 October.

China said that “for safety reasons, the China Space Station implemented preventive collision avoidance control.” This prompted criticism of Elon Musk and SpaceX on Chinese social media platforms.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches Starlink satellites into orbit. SpaceX
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches Starlink satellites into orbit. SpaceX

Not hogging space

It is true that SpaceX’s Starlink has been launching thousands of satellites over the past two years into orbit for its satellite broadband service.

There are now said to be more than 1,900 Starlink satellites in orbit, although the intention is to eventually build a fleet of 42,000 satellites.

And now Elon Musk has rejected criticisms that his company is taking up too much room in space, and said his tens of thousands of planned satellites would be able to coexist with many others.

Musk dismissed criticisms that SpaceX satellites were hogging up room in space, arguing that “tens of billions” of spacecraft could orbit close to Earth.

He also dismissed claims that SpaceX was dominating radio frequencies and orbital slots, in an interview published by the Financial Times.

“Space is just extremely enormous, and satellites are very tiny,” Musk was quoted by the FT as saying.

“This is not some situation where we’re effectively blocking others in any way. We’ve not blocked anyone from doing anything, nor do we expect to.”

Musk’s comments reportedly came in response to a claim from Josef Aschbacher, head of the European Space Agency, who said earlier this month that that Musk was “making the rules” for the new commercial space economy.

Speaking to the FT this month, Aschbacher warned that Musk’s rush to launch thousands of communications satellites would leave fewer radio frequencies and orbital slots available for everyone else.

Musk also rejected claims he is squeezing out rivals in space.

It should be noted that this week the UK government backed OneWeb launched another 36 satellites into orbit, which is 60 percent of its LEO (low Earth orbit) satellite fleet that will deliver high-speed, low-latency global connectivity to mostly the northern hemisphere.

Space debris

Yet despite Musk’s comments, there is recognised problem of space debris and clutter, as there are reportedly nearly 30,000 satellites and other debris believed to be orbiting the planet.

Governments are being urged to share location data to reduce the risk of catastrophic space collisions.

Last month Russia was heavily criticised for blowing up a satellite in orbit, creating creating a dangerous debris cloud which can be lethal to astronauts when on a space walk.

It took the action because the satellites could not be moved to burn up in the atmosphere.

The debris cloud can also be dangerous to space stations and other satellites.

NASA reportedly was forced to abruptly call off a spacewalk at the end of November, citing risks posed by space debris.

Musk tweeted in response that some Starlink satellite orbits had been adjusted to reduce the possibility of collisions.

China began constructing its space station in April with the launch of Tianhe. The station is expected to be completed by the end of 2022 after four crewed missions.

In April 2020 SpaceX responded to growing complaints about the ‘brightness’ from the firm’s satellite broadband constellation.

Elon Musk at the time said the company was “fixing” the brightness of his company’s satellites, which he blamed on the angle of the solar panels of each satellite.

It came after complaints from stargazers that their view of the stars was being obscured.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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