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China slams US over space station near misses

December 28, 2021

Two "close encounters" between a Chinese space station and satellites operated by Elon Musk's SpaceX have sparked outrage against the US billionaire among Chinese web users.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on January 24, 2021 in Cape Canaveral, Florida
Any collision would likely 'completely demolish' the Chinese space station and kill everyone on board, a space expert warnedImage: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto/picture alliance

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that the United States had ignored obligations under outer space treaties, putting astronauts at risk.

Chinese space station Tiangong had to maneuver to avoid colliding with a Starlink satellite — produced by a division of Elon Musk's SpaceX — according to a note submitted by China to the United Nations space agency earlier this month.

The Chinese station was forced to move two times, once in July and another time in October.

The note said the incidents "constituted dangers to the life or health of astronauts aboard the China Space Station."

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian called on the US to act responsibly in space.

"The US... ignores its obligations under international treaties, posing a serious threat to the lives and safety of astronauts," Lijian said during a press conference.

Beijing said in its note to the UN that members of the Outer Space Treaty, which forms the basis of international space law, are also responsible for actions by their nongovernment entities.

The private American company SpaceX is independent of the US military and civilian space agency NASA.

What could have happened in the event of a collision?

Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics warned that any collision would likely "completely demolish" the Chinese space station and kill everyone on board.

"We've really noticed the increase in the number of close passes since Starlink started getting deployed," he told French news agency AFP.

According to McDowell, this is because more objects are entering Earth's orbit and with higher frequency.

Starlink operates some 2,000 satellites that aim to provide widespread internet access.

The core module of China's Tiangong, meanwhile, entered orbit earlier this year and is expected to become fully operational next year.

SpaceX launches first rocket for US military

What Chinese netizens said about Elon Musk

Beijing's warning on Tuesday prompted Chinese internet users to lash out at Musk. The billionaire is typically widely admired in China for his business accomplishments; his electric car company, Tesla, sells tens of thousands of vehicles in China each month.

"Prepare to boycott Tesla," said one user of the popular Chinese social media platform Weibo.

"How ironic that Chinese people buy Tesla, contributing large sums of money so Musk can launch Starlink, and then he (nearly) crashes into China's space station," another person wrote.

mvb/rt (Reuters, AFP)