You could call it an invasion of space—in outer space. Authorities in China have lashed out after satellites launched by Elon Musk’s Starlink programme nearly collided with the country’s space station twice this past year.
In an official complaint filed with the UN’s space agency earlier this month, Beijing said that its space station was forced to take evasive action during the near misses, which took place in July and October this year.
The complaint added that Musk’s satellites “constituted dangers” to the safety of Chinese astronauts aboard the space station, which has been under construction since April and is due to be completed in 2022.
“As the [Starlink] satellite was continuously manoeuvring, the manoeuvre strategy was unknown and orbital errors were hard to be assessed, there was thus a collision risk between the Starlink-2305 satellite and the China Space Station,” the complaint read.
Chinese officials also stated that all those party to the Outer Space Treaty, including the U.S., had to bear “international responsibility” for activities carried out by both government and non-governmental bodies in space. Starlink is operated by SpaceX and has already launched 1,900 satellites into orbit to serve its broadband internet network, receiving permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to do so.
With nearly 30,000 satellites and other objects orbiting our planet, space debris has become a major problem, with scientists urging governments to share data to reduce the risk of catastrophic space collisions. They also predict that there could be ten times as many artificial satellites in low-Earth orbit alone in just a few years due to launches by commercial companies.
China itself contributed to the problem of space debris when it blew up one of its own satellites in 2007, resulting in a cloud of space junk. A chunk of a Chinese satellite also had a close encounter with the International Space Station in an incident in November.
Musk is already facing growing scrutiny in China, a key consumer market, as his electric car company Tesla faces criticism over the safety of its vehicles, namely issues with braking, and its attitude towards consumers.
In April, a Tesla owner who was involved in another crash went viral after climbing on top of a car at a Shanghai show to protest the company’s safety standards and poor responsiveness to customer complaints. In May, a traffic policeman in the Chinese city of Taizhou was killed in a crash involving a Tesla car.
This latest controversy surrounding the billionaire has only angered Chinese citizens further. Musk’s name started trending among disgruntled Chinese citizens who slammed his “arrogance” and criticized his companies.
On the Sina Weibo Chinese microblogging website, users called Musk’s Starlink satellites “American space warfare weapons” and dismissed them as “space junk.” “What can we expect from another arrogant American billionaire? China was being too forgiving by reporting it as an accident, but the incident reads as blatant sabotage,” wrote another Weibo user who went by the name of Luo Kaiqi.
On Musk’s official Weibo page, users reacted to old posts and chided him over the near-collision. “You’re lucky that Chinese astronauts think quickly,” one user wrote on a post. “Only shows the incompetency of your creations.”
Some users called for Musk to “apologise profusely.” “Tesla has been responsible for fatal car crashes in China. Don’t tell us that SpaceX will do the same,” one wrote.
“Can you imagine what would have happened if your satellites had indeed crashed into the space station? China has long been in outer space before you, and we deserve an apology and assurance that it won’t happen again because there will be grave consequences,” another said in a comment that drew hundreds of likes.
Speaking to the Financial Times on Dec. 29, Musk addressed claims that his satellites were taking up too much room in space and that he was “making the rules” for the emerging commercial space economy.
"Space is just extremely enormous, and satellites are very tiny," he said, refuting criticism that his SpaceX satellites were obstructive and damaging. "We've not blocked anyone from doing anything, nor do we expect to. A couple of thousand satellites is nothing. It's like, hey, here's a couple of thousand of cars on Earth, it's nothing."
Follow Heather Chen on Twitter.
This story has been updated to include Elon Musk's response to recent criticism and additional context on China's role in creating space debris.