On Monday, September 2, 2019, the Aeolus Earth observation satellite operated by ESA fired its thrusters "moving it off a collision course with a SpaceX satellite".
SpaceX is a private firm that designs, produces and launches advanced space vehicles. It was founded by Elon Musk in 2002 and its ultimate goal to enable the colonization of other planets.
The SpaceX satellite involved in the incident is one of the 60 spacecrafts of the firm's Starlink system, a satellite constellation developed to provide internet access across the entire globe. For this purpose, future plans include launching up to 12,000 satellites around the planet.
According to ESA, it was the first time such a maneuver was performed to dodge an active spacecraft. In 2018, 28 collision avoidance maneuvers were conducted but they were "the result of dead satellites or fragments from previous collisions". The procedure took place after a warning from the US Air Force and just half an orbit before the potential impact. ESA Officials decided that the safest manner to avoid the accident was to increase the altitude of the satellite.
SpaceX stated that the potential risk was not detected due to a bug on the firm's on-call operating system. "A bug in our on-call paging system prevented the Starlink operator from seeing the follow-on correspondence on this probability increase. Had the Starlink operator seen the correspondence, we would have coordinated with ESA to determine best approach with their continuing with their maneuver or our performing a maneuver," SpaceX, stated.
Due to the fact that the number of satellites around the globe is constantly increasing, the occurrence of collisions between satellites is a difficult issue to tackle. Currently, ESA is working on an Artificial Intelligence (AI) project in order to create an automatic collision avoidance system. Occasioned by the present incident, Holger Krag, Head of Space Safety at ESA, stated: "No one was at fault here, but this example does show the urgent need for proper space traffic management, with clear communication protocols and more automation. This is how air traffic control has worked for many decades, and now space operators need to get together to define automated maneuver coordination."