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European Space Agency satellite forced to dodge Elon Musk's Starlink constellation; This kind of manual manoeuvre could become impossible in the future.

Byline: Sophie Curtis

The European Space Agency (ESA) has been forced to perform a "collision avoidance manoeuvre" to prevent one of its satellites from crashing into Elon Musk's Starlink constellation.

The Starlink constellation, launched by Elon Musk's company SpaceX back in May, consists of 60 small communication satellites, which orbit the Earth at an altitude of 340 miles (550 kilometres).

They will eventually form part of a "mega constellation" of close to 12,000 satellites, providing cheap and reliable internet access worldwide.

Astronomers have previously warned that the constellation, and others like it, could increase the risk of space collisions.

Now, for the first time ever, the ESA has been forced to manoeuvre one of its satellites out of the way of a mega constellation to avoid a collision.

The ESA's Aeolis Earth observation satellite reportedly fired its thrusters yesterday, after experts in the agency's space debris team calculated the risk of collision between the satellites.

They determined that the safest option was for Aeolus to increase its altitude and pass over the SpaceX satellite.

The manoeuvre took place about half an orbit before the potential collision.

Not long after the collision was expected, Aeolus called home as usual to send back its science data -- proving the manoeuvre was successful and a collision was indeed avoided.

"It is very rare to perform collision avoidance manoeuvres with active satellites," ESA explained in aTwitter thread.

"The vast majority of ESA avoidance manoeuvres are the result of dead satellites or fragments from previous collisions.

"These avoidance manoeuvres take a lot of time to prepare - from determining the future orbital positions of all functioning spacecraft, to calculating the risk of collision and potential outcomes of different actions."

It added that, as the number of satellites in orbit increases, due to mega constellations such as Starlink comprising hundreds or even thousands of satellites, today's "manual" collision avoidance process will become impossible.

"ESA is preparing to automate this process using artificial intelligence," it said.

"From the initial assessment of a potential collision to a satellite moving out of the way, automated systems are becoming necessary to protect our space infrastructure."

Since launching the Starlink constellation in May, SpaceX has lost contact with three of the satellites, and taken two functioning satellites out of action, to test the spacecraft's ability to propulsively deorbit.

"Due to their design and low orbital position, all five deorbiting satellites will disintegrate once they enter Earth's atmosphere," a SpaceX spokesperson explained.


Credit: ESA

Credit: ESA

ESA's Aeolus Earth observation satellite

Credit: ESA

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Title Annotation:Science
Publication:Daily Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 3, 2019
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