China tells US to ‘act responsibly’ after close calls in space

The Chinese government has warned the US to “act responsibly” in outer space after claiming Beijing’s space station was forced to take evasive action twice earlier this year to avoid colliding with small satellites operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. 

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijan alleged in a statement Tuesday that the near-collisions posed a serious threat to the lives and safety of the country’s astronauts, according to multiple reports.  

The incidents occurred in July and October, when the SpaceX satellites drifted extremely close to the Tiangong space station. The astronauts on board were forced to implement “preventive collision avoidance control” on both occasions, China said earlier this month. 

China called on the United Nations to remind all countries — including the US — that they “bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space … whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities,” according to the South China Morning Post

China claims that satellites run by Elon Musk’s SpaceX project got dangerously close to the Tiangong space station.
Getty Images for TIME

SpaceX’s Starlink Internet Services division has launched nearly 2,000 small satellites as part of a program aimed at providing internet access to most of the planet, especially in remote areas. 

Experts have warned that the satellites could “completely demolish” China’s space station in the event of a collision. 

Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told the Guardian that Starlink is a “big part” of the reason for the growing numbers of near-collisions.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian issued the aggressive statement on Tuesday.
Kyodo News/Sipa USA

However, he added, “it’s not like the Chinese had a clean record here.”

“The US space station has several times over the past 10 years had to dodge pieces from the Chinese military anti-satellite test of 2007,” said McDowell, calling that incident “the biggest debris event ever.”

While Musk is a popular figure in China, the near-misses caused backlash on Chinese social media, with one Weibo user called the satellites “just a pile of space junk” and another describing them as “American space warfare weapons.”

The latest flare-up between the two nations comes weeks before February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, the subject of a diplomatic boycott by the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and Lithuania.

A SpaceX Starlink rocket launches.
Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said Musk’s Starlink satellites are among the chief causes of increased space collisions.
AP

The boycott was called into question on Monday, when the Chinese Foreign Ministry revealed it had received at least 18 US applications for diplomatic visas. However, the State Department and White House said there had been no change in the policy and that the visas were for “consular and diplomatic security personnel” to assist US athletes, coaches, trainers and other staff.

Tensions between China and the US have grown in recent months over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, human rights abuses by Beijing, and the status of Taiwan.