SpaceX And NASA Will Share Starlink Data To Avoid Collisions And Improve Safety

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) have entered into a space act agreement to share data for the latter's Starlink constellation of internet small satellites. This agreement will allow the duo to coordinate Starlink and NASA operations to avoid any accidents between the satellites and the agency manned and unmanned operations primarily in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO). SpaceX and NASA have agreed to share data for future Starlink launches in advance in order to charter out orbital or trajectory overlap between the satellites and the International Space Station (ISS) or other NASA missions.

NASA Will Rely On Starlink's Autonomous Maneuvering Capabilities To Ensure Orbital Safety For Agency Assets

The agreement was signed by NASA's acting associate administrator Mr. Steve Jurczyk and SpaceX's vice president of customer operations and integration Mr. Lee Rosen in January. Under its provisions, SpaceX will provide NASA with data for future Starlink launches that include the spacecraft's launch dates and orbits in order for the agency to determine whether it needs to perform a launch collision analysis.

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SpaceX will also be responsible for ensuring that its future Starlink launches do not violate the existing launch collision analysis conducted by the space agency. To meet this criterion, the company has agreed to finetune its launch timelines to ensure that Starlinks incapable of autonomous maneuvering do not harm NASA assets. These satellites are the ones that are in the process of pre-orbital insertion checkouts; a process through which the spacecraft test their systems in a lower orbit before 'raising' themselves to the final destination, ensuring that the malfunctioning satellites reenter and burn up in the Earth's atmosphere relatively faster. Under the agreement, NASA will not maneuver any of its assets, leaving it to SpaceX in order to avoid accidents resulting from both parties maneuvering at the same time.

For its part of the deal, NASA will work with the United States Air Force's 18th Space Control Squadron (18 SPCS) to provide the military with data for the agency's space assets for it to conduct analysis to determine whether a risk of collision with in-orbit Starlinks is present. The 18 SPCS will then share the data with SpaceX to allow the company to program its satellites to avoid any incidents.

A batch of sixty Starlink satellites deploying after the constellation's 11th launch on September 3rd, 2020. Image: SpaceX

The space agency will also share data for the ISS with SpaceX so that the latter can avoid any interlaps between the space station and the satellites. NASA will also share data for its assets and Starlinks three times a day with SpaceX, and the agency will provide sufficient lead times for emergency maneuvers that have not been screened beforehand.

SpaceX will also ensure that its insertion orbits for Starlink are either 5 kilometers above or below the ISS' lowest and highest orbital points. This limit will also apply to other NASA assets and should SpaceX determine that it cannot meet the limitation, it and the agency will discuss risk mitigation approaches a week before SpaceX locks in the insertion altitude.

The two parties will also tailor Starlink launch times two days before launch to ensure that the time does not violate any risk assessments conducted by NASA. NASA will also provide SpaceX with a list of the agency's assets to consider when determining Starlink orbital injection parameters.

SpaceX's currently pending third-modification for Starlihk before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) uses the idea of increased orbital safety to argue its merits. This modification, if granted, will allow the company to further reduce its satellite altitudes, and as a result, reduce the time that the spacecraft spends in orbit. NASA and SpaceX will also work together to reduce Starlink brightness - a phenomenon that astronomers all over the world have criticized.