SpaceX Says OneWeb Spread False Story of “Near Missed” Satellite Collision


In reality, “[t]he probability of collision never exceeded the threshold for a [collision-avoidance] maneuver, and the satellites would not have collided even if no maneuver had been conducted,” SpaceX told the Federal Communications Commission in an ex parte filing. The filing describes a meeting that SpaceX and OneWeb representatives had with FCC staff yesterday in which SpaceX said it “corrected the record regarding recent press reports regarding physical coordination between SpaceX and OneWeb.” The meeting came one day after The Wall Street Journal published an article titled, “Elon Musk’s Satellite Internet Project Is Too Risky, Rivals Say.” The Journal article described OneWeb’s allegations as follows:

Starlink satellites have come alarmingly close to other spacecraft twice in the last two years, including on April 2, when a Starlink satellite prompted another operated by OneWeb, controlled by Indian conglomerate Bharti Global and the UK government, to make evasive maneuvers, according to OneWeb and the US Space Command. The Journal also quoted McLaughlin as saying, “SpaceX has a gung-ho approach to space… Every one of our satellites is like a Ford Focus—it does the same thing, it gets tested, it works—while Starlink satellites are like Teslas: They launch them and then they have to upgrade and fix them, or even replace them altogether.”

The Journal said that “SpaceX didn’t reply to requests for comment” about the OneWeb incident and another event from 2019 in which the European Space Agency said it performed a collision-avoidance maneuver to avoid a SpaceX satellite. In yesterday’s filing to the FCC, SpaceX said that “OneWeb’s head lobbyist recently made demonstrably inaccurate statements to the media about recent coordinations of physical operations. Specifically, Mr. McLaughlin of OneWeb told the Wall Street Journal that SpaceX switched off its AI-powered, autonomous collision avoidance system and ‘they couldn’t do anything to avoid a collision.’ Rather, SpaceX and OneWeb were working together in good faith at the technical level. As part of these discussions, OneWeb itself requested that SpaceX turn off the system temporarily to allow their maneuver, as agreed by the parties.”

When contacted by OneWeb, 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, according to Mr. McLaughlin. Mr. Musk’s satellites are equipped with an AI-powered, automated collision avoidance system. Yet that system had to be switched off when a Starlink satellite came within 190 feet of the rival’s satellite this month, according to OneWeb’s [government affairs chief, Chris] McLaughlin.

OneWeb admitted it was wrong, SpaceX says SpaceX’s “autonomous collision avoidance system was and remains fully functional at all times,” SpaceX also wrote.

SpaceX expressed its disappointment to the Commission that OneWeb’s officials chose to publicly misstate the circumstances of the coordination. Ongoing successful coordination depends on trust and transparency between the operators and the types of tactics used in this case by OneWeb result in a less safe space environment as they detract from the technical work needed to manage a satellite constellation safely. SpaceX was therefore grateful that OneWeb offered in the meeting with the Commission to retract its previous incorrect statements. SpaceX looks forward to hearing confirmation from OneWeb when those retractions have been made. OneWeb offered to retracted its false statements during the meeting with SpaceX and the FCC, according to SpaceX’s recounting of yesterday’s meeting with seven staffers from the commission’s International Bureau, including International Bureau Chief Tom Sullivan and Satellite Division Acting Chief Karl Kensinger. “Despite recent reports to the contrary, the parties made clear that there was no ‘close call’ or ‘near miss.’ SpaceX and OneWeb agreed that they had conducted a successful coordination, resulting in a positive outcome,” SpaceX wrote. The SpaceX filing continued:

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