Published: Tue, September 03, 2019
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Space agency satellite forced to dodge SpaceX ‘mega constellation’ orbiting Earth

Space agency satellite forced to dodge SpaceX ‘mega constellation’ orbiting Earth

The European Space Agency on Monday said it had to fire thrusters on one of its satellites to avoid a collision with a satellite from SpaceX's Starlink constellation.

ESA says the advent of so-called mega constellations like Starlink, consisting of hundreds or thousands of satellites, means collision avoidance manoeuvres will need to be automated in future.

The ESA says that after the avoidance maneuver was completed, the Aeolus satellite was able to make contact as usual and transmit science data.

In an emailed statement, a SpaceX spokesperson said it missed an update from the US Air Force showing an increase in the probability that the two satellites could collide to greater than 1 in 10,000, which is the industry threshold at which evasive maneuvers are recommended.

SpaceX reportedly refused to move its satellite when alerted to the risk of collision, according to space journalist Jonathan O'Callaghan. "It is very rare to perform collision avoidance maneuvers with active satellites".

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ESA tweeted out a lengthy thread explaining the decision to alter the course of its satellite, citing one piece of hardware in SpaceX's "mega constellation" of Starlink satellites as the reason.

He added: "It was at least clear who had to react". Each of the SpaceX satellites weighs 500 pounds and a single collision with another satellite could create debits, potentially setting off a domino effect of other satellites being hit and creating more debris.

SpaceX said it is investigating the problem 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".

SpaceX, founded by billionaire Musk in 2002, this year launched a constellation of 60 broadband-beaming satellites, a project known as Starlink.

Collision-avoidance maneuvers like the one Aeolus performed yesterday may therefore become much more common in the next few years - so common, in fact, that overseeing such operations manually will likely become impossible, ESA officials said. From the initial assessment of a potential collision to a satellite moving out of the way, automated systems are becoming necessary to protect our space infrastructure.

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