Elon Musk accused of ‘space warfare’ after Starlink satellites in near miss with China’s space station

Elon Musk has been accused of "space warfare" after some of the satellites he launched for a groundbreaking global internet project had a near miss with China’s new space station.

Satellites from Starlink Internet Services, a division of Musk’s SpaceX aerospace company, had two "close encounters" with the Chinese space station in July and October, according to a document submitted by China to the UN’s space agency earlier this month.

"For safety reasons, the China Space Station implemented preventive collision avoidance control," China said in a report published on the website of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.

Mr Musk’s Starlink project to blanket the world with universal internet coverage has hit stumbling blocks before in China, which keeps information tightly controlled.

A copy of the report circulated on Monday on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, where several users referred to the project as “space warfare”.

Chinese taikonaut Ye Guangfu exiting the space station core module Tianhe

Credit: Xinhua/Shutterstock
/Shutterstock

One person called Starlink “a rogue project,” while another said it was “just a lot of space junk”.

SpaceX has so far deployed nearly 1,900 satellites to serve its Starlink broadband network, and Mr Musk has said he ultimately wants to put about 42,000 satellites in orbit.

State-run tabloid Global Times said the satellites could be “used to detect China’s space perception capabilities and test whether China can accurately grasp their actions.”

“The aerospace industry is currently concerned about the military application of Starlink satellites because after the deployment of more than 40,000 satellites, the normal launch of other countries will be affected,” the paper said.

Elon’s Musk plans interfere with China’s ‘Great Firewall’

This is not the first time Mr Musk’s space programme has gotten in China’s crosshairs.

In order to achieve his plan of high-speed Internet for all across the earth, Mr Musk initially planned to ask China for permission to build antenna dishes or ground links on its territory to send and receive data from the Starlink spacecraft.

But that plan would have interfered with China’s censored Internet network, known as the “Great Firewall,” which blocks access to websites such as Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and international media in order to keep its 1.4 billion people shielded from any criticism against the country’s communist leadership.

Last month, the Chinese division of Tesla, which is also owned by Mr Musk, announced Starlink would not launch its services in China. Instead, all Tesla cars and charging stations in the country would use network services provided by Chinese operators, with all data kept in the country.

The announcement came as China is forcing foreign companies to keep inside the country all records collected from Chinese consumers. Tesla also needs authorities’ approval before updating certain software on cars in China.

Tesla is estimated to be producing more than half of its vehicles in China, and Chinese sales have helped to make the company profitable.

Elon Musk has taken care to abide by the requests of the Chinese authorities

Credit: NurPhoto
/NurPhoto

So Mr Musk has made sure to toe the line when it comes to the Chinese government’s requests.

Tesla apologised earlier this year over its handling of consumer complaints after a customer publicly blamed Tesla brakes for an accident during an auto show in Shanghai.

Mr Musk followed up by singing China’s praise on Twitter during the Communist Party’s centenary, in July. “The economic prosperity that China has achieved is truly amazing, especially in infrastructure!”, Mr Musk tweeted.

On Monday, some Chinese internet users drew a connection between Mr Musk’s space programme and his China electric vehicle operations and sales.

“If someday Starlink’s low-orbit satellites collide with our country’s low-orbit satellites or other spacecraft,” the user wrote, “what will happen to Tesla in China?”

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