A SpaceX satellite controversy is adding to Elon Musk’s bad year in China

Elon Musk’s turbulent year in China was felt all the way out in outer space this week, after the Chinese government complained that two “close encounters” with SpaceX satellites had forced its space station to take evasive action to protect its astronauts. 

In an official report submitted to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, China claimed that the two satellites “constituted dangers to the life or health of astronauts aboard the China Space Station.” The two incidents occurred in July and October, according to the report.

Though the report was submitted earlier this month, news of the near misses gained traction in China this week after the story went viral, gaining roughly 90 million views on Weibo, China’s Twitter-equivalent social media site.

Weibo users lashed out against Musk’s leadership, and threatened to boycott Tesla cars in the country. 

“How ironic that Chinese people buy Tesla, contributing large sums of money so Musk can launch Starlink, and then he (nearly) crashes into China’s space station,” one user wrote.

“Prepare to boycott Tesla,” wrote another.  

Though Musk has become an increasingly well-known figure in China, it’s not the first time this year that the Tesla and SpaceX CEO has garnered negative attention in the country.

At the Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition in April, Tesla’s presence was overshadowed by protesters—one of whom promptly went viral on Weibo after jumping on a Tesla Model 3 and shouting, “Tesla brakes fail!” to a crowd of onlookers.

Then, in June, Tesla recalled nearly 300,000 Model 3 and Model Y cars in China owing to a software glitch that could enable passengers to accidentally activate autopilot. At the time, Tesla issued an apology through its official Weibo account for “any inconvenience” caused to customers and pledged to “continue to improve safety in strict accordance with national requirements.”

As of midday Tuesday, neither Musk nor a representative from SpaceX had commented on the near collisions between its satellites and the Chinese space station this week. At a press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the near misses were examples of the United States ignoring its obligations under the Outer Space Treaty.

“The U.S., while talking about the concept of responsible outer space behavior, is in practice ignoring its obligations under the treaty,” Zhao said, while urging “the U.S. to act responsibly” and “take immediate measures to prevent such incidents from happening again.”

SpaceX has launched more than 1,600 satellites in recent years as part of its Starlink constellation project, which aims to bring high-speed internet across the world. With permission from the United States, SpaceX can launch up to 12,000 total satellites as part of the Starlink project, though those launches were paused in June.

The project has the potential to cause more international drama in the years to come. In August, one scientist predicted that once SpaceX launches all 12,000 satellites, the Starlink constellation project will be involved in up to 90% of all near misses in outer space.

And as more satellites are launched overall—not just by SpaceX, but as a result of an ever increasing rate of commercial and governmental activity in space—the issue of how to manage traffic in space is one that will continue to garner international attention. 

For Musk, meanwhile, the new year means a new opportunity to rebuild his company’s reputation in China after a rough 2021. Doing so is instrumental, as the country accounts for a fifth of Tesla’s annual revenue and is its second largest market after the United States, according to a 2021 company filing

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