SpaceX didn’t move its satellite out of the way of a potential collision because of a computer bug
On Monday, a European satellite changed its position in orbit to avoid a potential collision with one of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites — one of 60 probes the company launched in May to beam internet coverage down to Earth. The European Space Agency (ESA), which operates the satellite, performed the maneuver after calculating a higher-than-usual probability that the two satellites might run into each other. SpaceX did not move its satellite, blaming a computer bug that prevented proper communication with ESA.
Maneuvers like this aren’t uncommon. Every now and then, satellite operators will slightly alter a spacecraft’s position if they calculate an uncomfortable chance that their vehicle might hit another vehicle. No one wants a collision, especially since these satellites are moving through space at several thousands of miles per hour. At those speeds, an impact can cause spacecraft to break apart into hundreds of pieces. The resulting high-speed junk could potentially run into other satellites, possibly creating more dangerous debris.
This particular scenario with ESA raises some concerns since SpaceX’s probes are the first of nearly 12,000 internet-beaming satellites the company intends to put into a low orbit around Earth. The sheer size of the planned Starlink constellation has prompted many space experts to speculate how these vehicles might increase the chances of collisions in space. If satellites are already having to move out of the way of a Starlink satellite, how often is this going to happen when there are thousands of these vehicles in orbit?
Another worry revolves around SpaceX’s decision to not move the Starlink satellite. ESA officials said that they did not have the best communication with SpaceX leading up to the maneuver, and the agency ultimately made the decision on its own to move its satellite without SpaceX’s input. Initial reports claimed that SpaceX had “refused” to move the Starlink satellite, but SpaceX says the bad communication was not intentional and that a bug in the company’s “on-call paging system” prevented the Starlink team from getting additional email correspondence from ESA.
“SpaceX is still investigating the issue and will implement corrective actions,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “However, had the Starlink operator seen the correspondence, we would have coordinated with ESA to determine best approach with their continuing with their maneuver or our performing a maneuver.”
This situation started last week when ESA realized that its Aeolus satellite — an Earth-observing spacecraft that launched in August 2018 — might come close to a Starlink satellite that was in a relativ