One of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites nearly collided with a weather satellite

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the European Space Agency had to move one of its satellites to protect it from colliding with a SpaceX Starlink satellite, the space agency announced on Twitter September 2nd.

A first: ESA said it was the first time it had to perform a “collision avoidance maneuver” to prevent one of its satellites from crashing into a satellite in the “mega constellation”. Specifically, it had to fire the thrusters from the Aeolus satellite in order to increase its altitude so it could pass over a SpaceX Starlink satellite.

Aeolus, a science satellite launched in August 2018 to improve weather forecasting, began sending back data shortly after the time of the predicted collision, showing that it had successfully avoided danger. ESA said it was rare that it had to dodge active satellites: most such maneuvers are aimed at avoiding debris. Aeolus orbits considerably lower than the Starlink constellation, but the “Starlink 44” satellite orbits lower for practicing deorbit techniques, Forbes reported.

Subtle hollow: It’s hard not to interpret the news as criticism of SpaceX’s plans to launch 12,000 satellites to provide broadband internet connections. Other companies, like Telesat, OneWeb and LeoSat, have similar plans. SpaceX started by launching 60 of the satellites in May 2019, but it plans to rapidly increase the numbers in the coming months.

Space debris: ESA is far from alone in its concerns. Space debris experts warn that these sorts of “mega constellations” of satellites have the potential to cause far bigger and lasting problems than more eye-catching stunts like India’s anti-satellite missile test. It is currently very rare to have to dodge active satellites, the ESA said, but we can expect to see several hundred collision warnings each week before long.

A potential solution: Today’s manual collision avoidance processes simply won’t work in the age of mega-constellations. There will be too many to keep an eye on. As a result, ESA getting ready to automate this process using artificial intelligence systems, which assess potential collisions and rule out satellites. Until these are operational, we rely on human observation and intervention.

Update, September 3: We have changed the reason why the satellite was in lower orbit on this occasion.

Read more: How to fight a war in space (and get away with it)

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