Darmstadt, Hawthorne Following the evasive maneuver of a European Esa satellite with a SpaceX “Starlink” satellite, the US space company blames its software for poor communication. SpaceX referred to the German Press Agency on a flaw in his messaging system. As a result, one employee did not see the US Air Force upgrading the likelihood of a collision between the two satellites.
“If the Starlink staff had seen the correspondence, we would have agreed with ESA to identify the best solution (…),” said the private space company from California. SpaceX will investigate and fix the problem.
According to the European space organization Esa, a satellite of the agency had changed on Monday for the first time a satellite of a so-called large constellation. Large or even megaconstellations denote groups of up to several thousand satellites. Several companies – including SpaceX – are trying to build such constellations.
The Earth research satellite “Aeolus” fired its engines on Monday morning, as the Esa announced on Twitter. Experts previously calculated the risk of collision and then decided to move “Aeolus” further away from Earth. “Aeolus” flew over the SpaceX satellite. According to Esa, the probability of a collision was about 1 in 1000.
Previously, Esa contacted SpaceX. The American company had then informed the Esa that they are currently planning no maneuver, it was said by the Esa. According to SpaceX, this reaction is due to the error in their own communication software. The Esa decided, according to their own information, to avoid one-sided and shared this with SpaceX.
The agreement is important, said Holger Krag, the head of the Esa Space Attention Office. Otherwise, in the worst case, it could be that both satellites are heading in the same direction. The agreement with SpaceX worked well according to the expert, but the communication could be more intense. “There are satellite operators, they do not react when they write to them.”
So far, there are no rules of priority in space, explained Krag. Around 90 percent of the potentially dangerous encounters happened with inactive space debris – because it is clear that the active satellite has to dodge. For encounters between two active satellites, operators have to decide on a case-by-case basis what happens.
Esa leader Jan Wörner announced that the topic would be on the agenda of the ministerial conference in Seville in November. “In times when mega-constellations are planned and established, new regulations will be necessary,” stressed Europe's Space Director. Collisions are not only critical for those directly affected, but could result in more dangerous space debris.
“The future of dense satellite traffic alone is reason enough – and the fact that the low cost of the satellites in the mega constellations forcibly lead to lower reliability, aggravates the situation,” he said. At the Council of Ministers concrete measures to avoid collisions – for example by artificial intelligence – as well as the removal of disused satellites and corresponding regulations should be discussed.
SpaceX's Starlink project could boast up to 12,000 satellites in the coming years. The earth-spanning network will in future also provide remote regions of the earth with fast Internet. The ESA satellite “Aeolus” uses lasers to measure the winds around the earth. He orbits the planet at about 300 kilometers altitude and has been in space for just over a year.
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