SpaceX agrees to steer Starlink internet satellites clear of space station, NASA spacecraft

Sixty just-launched SpaceX Starlink satellites circle Earth prior to being deployed.
Sixty just-launched SpaceX Starlink satellites circle Earth prior to being deployed. (Image credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX recently inked a deal with NASA to move any of the company's Starlink internet satellites out of the way if they stray too close to the International Space Station or other agency spacecraft. 

The Space Act Agreement, which was signed on March 18, will help maintain and improve space safety, NASA officials said.

SpaceX has launched more than 1,400 of its Starlink broadband satellites to orbit to date. Following the first operational Starlink launch in 2019, the company has tweaked the satellites' design, providing upgrades intended to reduce their reflectivity, enable them to communicate with each other on orbit and even maneuver out of the way if necessary.

Related: SpaceX's Starlink satellite megaconstellation launches in photos

"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," Steve Jurczyk, NASA's acting administrator, said in a statement.

In 2020, the International Space Station had to adjust its orbit multiple times to avoid potential collisions, a task that takes some coordinated effort. As the number of Starlink and other satellites in orbit increases, so does the likelihood that some type of space-traffic incident could occur. 

SpaceX has long stressed that its Starlink satellites are equipped with autonomous collision-avoidance features that help the craft change positions in orbit. By signing this new agreement, NASA is hopeful that if such a close pass should occur, only the Starlink spacecraft will have to move. 

The agreement also requires SpaceX to notify NASA at least a week before each Starlink launch so the agency can determine if that mission poses any collision-avoidance issues. To go one step further, SpaceX has agreed to launch its satellites into initial orbits that do not come within 3 miles (5 kilometers) of the ISS or other NASA spacecraft. 

"NASA has agreed to not maneuver in the event of a potential conjunction to ensure the parties do not inadvertently maneuver into one another," the agreement states. "NASA will operate on the basis that the autonomous maneuvering capability of the Starlink satellites will attempt to maneuver to avoid conjunction with NASA assets, and that NASA will maintain its planned trajectory unless otherwise informed by SpaceX."

Additionally, the collaboration with SpaceX will include work to further reduce the brightness of the Starlink satellites. To date, SpaceX has outfitted its Starlink satellites with a special sun visor that reduces the spacecraft's brightness, but the agreement allows for the sharing of information between the two entities. 

SpaceX is not the only company with big plans for space-based internet service. OneWeb, Telstar and Amazon all have their own constellations planned. In a real-world example of why these types of agreements exist, a Starlink spacecraft and a OneWeb satellite zoomed uncomfortably close to each other on March 30. 

The two companies were able to coordinate, with OneWeb moving its satellite out of the way. As the number of satellites in space increases rapidly, such cooperation will likely be key to avoiding collisions. 

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Amy Thompson
Contributing Writer

Amy Thompson is a Florida-based space and science journalist, who joined as a contributing writer in 2015. She's passionate about all things space and is a huge science and science-fiction geek. Star Wars is her favorite fandom, with that sassy little droid, R2D2 being her favorite. She studied science at the University of Florida, earning a degree in microbiology. Her work has also been published in Newsweek, VICE, Smithsonian, and many more. Now she chases rockets, writing about launches, commercial space, space station science, and everything in between.