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SpaceX and NASA act to avoid Starlink collisions in orbit

SpaceX and NASA have reached an agreement aimed at avoiding collisions in orbit that would create more space debris that could potentially endanger human life.

SpaceX has a plan to provide global broadband internet by beaming it down from satellites in space. The California-based company has been deploying its small Starlink internet satellites in low-Earth orbit via regular rocket launches that started in May 2019, with around 1,200 of them already providing a beta service from space.

With SpaceX planning to deploy as many as 30,000 additional Starlink satellites in the coming years, and a growing number of other companies also sending satellites skyward, near-Earth space is set to get even more crowded.

Collisions between objects in space cause additional space junk that poses a danger to other satellites, including the human-inhabited International Space Station (ISS) that orbits Earth at a speed of 17,500 mph. And space junk is already a very real threat, as only last year the station was forced to take swift action to avoid a piece of space debris coming its way.

The serious situation has prompted NASA to work with SpaceX to keep low-Earth orbit safe. The two parties this week announced the signing of a joint agreement that will ensure the sharing of relevant information to maintain and improve space safety.

“This agreement enables a deeper level of coordination, cooperation, and data sharing, and defines the arrangement, responsibilities, and procedures for flight safety coordination,” NASA said in a release. “The focus of the agreement is on conjunction avoidance and launch collision avoidance between NASA spacecraft and the large constellation of SpaceX Starlink satellites, as well as related rideshare missions,” adding that it defines a conjunction as “a close approach between two objects in space, usually at very high speed.”

Besides its internet-providing technology, Starlink satellites can also be accurately tracked so engineers on the ground can see where each one is at any given time, with such data vital for collision avoidance. SpaceX has agreed with NASA that its Starlink satellites will autonomously or manually maneuver to ensure NASA satellites can operate safely, without any threat of collision.

“Society depends on space-based capabilities for global communications, navigation, weather forecasting, and much more,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. “With commercial companies launching more and more satellites, it’s critical we increase communications, exchange data, and establish best practices to ensure we all maintain a safe space environment.”

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