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Earlier this month, news emerged that SpaceX’s Starlink network narrowly avoided a satellite collision. But on Tuesday, the company told the FCC that the incident was grossly overblown.
In a filing (PDF) with the agency, SpaceX blames rival satellite internet provider OneWeb for generating the alarm when in reality no danger existed. “Despite recent reports to the contrary, the parties made clear that there was no ‘close call’ or ‘near miss,’” writes David Goldman, SpaceX director of satellite policy.
On April 9, The Verge reported that recently launched satellites from OneWeb had nearly collided with the Starlink constellation from SpaceX. Satellites from the two companies allegedly at one point came as close as 190 feet.
To prevent crashes, each Starlink satellite has an automated collision-avoidance system. However, OneWeb’s government affairs chief, Chris McLaughlin, told The Wall Street Journal that SpaceX had to turn off the system due to satellites coming in such close contact with OneWeb’s own network.
“Starlink’s engineers said they couldn’t do anything to avoid a collision and switched off the collision-avoidance system, so OneWeb could maneuver around the Starlink satellite without interference,” the Journal wrote, citing McLaughlin.
However, SpaceX portrays the incident very differently. “Despite OneWeb’s previous public claims, SpaceX’s autonomous collision-avoidance system was and remains fully functional at all times,” Goldman says in the FCC filing. “SpaceX only turned off the capability at OneWeb’s explicit request after OneWeb decided to conduct a maneuver.”
A timeline of the events supplied by Goldman says SpaceX initially volunteered to manually maneuver the Starlink satellites, but both companies decided to wait. “The probability of collision never exceeded the threshold for a maneuver, and the satellites would not have collided even if no maneuver had been conducted,” he added.
The filing goes on to say officials from both SpaceX, OneWeb, and the FCC held a call on Tuesday to discuss the situation. Goldman then claims OneWeb offered in the meeting “to retract its previous incorrect statements” on the incident.
“SpaceX looks forward to hearing confirmation from OneWeb when those retractions have been made,” Goldman adds.
OneWeb did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Goldman suggests the whole dispute is about OneWeb and other companies trying to limit competition in the satellite broadband market. “Similarly, Viasat has been making misrepresentations about space safety and demanding unilateral restrictions on competitors in scores of Commission filings and public statements,” Goldman writes.
Indeed, SpaceX has been sparing with rival internet providers on the scope of Starlink, which the FCC can control. SpaceX is hoping to eventually launch tens of thousands of satellites in low-Earth orbit to provide high-speed broadband. But both ground-based ISPs and satellite broadband providers have tried to convince the FCC to impose restrictions on the Starlink network and deny it federal funding. So don’t be surprised if more spats around Starlink erupt.
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