SpaceX Disputes Report of Near-Miss Between Starlink, OneWeb Satellites

SpaceX has filed a complaint with the FCC regarding reports that a OneWeb satellite nearly collided with a Starlink satellite. OneWeb is a competitor for SpaceX’s Starlink satellite service.

The incident occurred while OneWeb was launching a group of 36 Internet satellites out of a planned constellation of 648. OneWeb’s satellites will operate at a higher orbit than the Starlink constellation and this batch had to pass through a group of Starlink satellites to get to their planned orbit. According to OneWeb, one of its satellites passed within 190 feet of one another. The U.S. Space Force issued a “red alert” to both companies regarding the possible collision.

OneWeb claims that SpaceX told its competitor that there was nothing they could do to avoid a collision and disabled the collision-avoidance system to give OneWeb’s satellite a chance to make its own evasive maneuvers. SpaceX denies that it ever disabled the collision-avoidance system.

SpaceX Director of Satellite Policy David Goldman said in the FCC filing that OneWeb was to blame for triggering an unnecessary red alert from the Space Force. SpaceX offered to maneuver its satellite out of the way, but OneWeb turned it down and the chances of an actual collision were slim even without any maneuvers.

“Despite OneWeb’s previous public claims, SpaceX’s autonomous collision-avoidance system was and remains fully functional at all times. SpaceX only turned off the capability at OneWeb’s explicit request after OneWeb decided to conduct a maneuver,” Goldman stated in the filing.

According to the paperwork involved in the complaint, officials from OneWeb, SpaceX, and the FCC held a meeting regarding the close encounter between the two satellites. SpaceX claims that OneWeb offered to retract its earlier statements about the alleged disabling of the Starlink satellite’s collision-avoidance system. OneWeb has not yet issued a public retraction.

OneWeb has not yet commented on the allegations described in SpaceX’s complaint. However, SpaceX personnel have hinted that this is yet another attempt by a competitor to throw shade at Starlink. Just a few months ago, ViaSat filed a complaint with the FCC alleging that SpaceX’s planned 42,000-satellite Starlink constellation will add to the “space junk” program. ViaSat’s filings have, of course, been sharply criticized by both SpaceX and Elon Musk.

“Viasat has been making misrepresentations about space safety and demanding unilateral restrictions on competitors in scores of Commission filings and public statements,” Goldman said.

Such an attitude may not be completely unwarranted, considering that SpaceX has been so focused on launching satellites so quickly and making certain that people in regions that have previously been neglected by Internet service providers could gain access. SpaceX currently has 1,400 Starlink satellites in orbit and launches more on a reusable Falcon 9 rocket every few weeks. Satellite Internet services like Starlink, OneWeb, and ViaSat could be useful in closing the “Digital Divide” discussed in the below Ted Talk if they could only focus on developing their respective services instead of fighting with one another with the regulators acting as an umpire.

Starlink’s “Better than Nothing Beta” has recruited beta testers who say that the terminals perform well in harsh winter conditions. It has worked with some parties like Washington State’s Hoh Tribe and a school district in Texas to provide access to low-income families who might otherwise be left behind by the lack of opportunity caused by unreliable Internet access. SpaceX is also currently working with the United States’ FCC and UK’s “Project Gigabit” to bring better broadband Internet access to rural areas.

A OneWeb spokesman has chimed in by saying that its planned 648-satellite constellation is “a more responsible use of space” and perfectly capable of providing global coverage for Internet access. SpaceX says that the lower orbit for its satellites will provide improved latency times, which could be valuable for applications like gaming that require fast response times.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that future missions for the Starship rocket and spacecraft might include retrieving non-functional space junk. A company called D-Sat has also said that the issue could be much reduced before satellites are even launched by attaching a small “jet pack” to satellites that could be used to slow them down enough for them to burn up in the atmosphere when they have reached the end of their useful life.