SpaceX, NASA Agree to Avoid Space Collisions amid Swarm of Starlink Satellites

SpaceX and NASA have signed a joint agreement to prevent spacecraft collisions as the former seeks to build up its vast fleet of internet satellites.

The agreement was signed by the two parties in January but NASA announced it on Thursday.

Under the agreement, both parties will help ensure that the Starlink satellites do not collide with any of NASA's assets in space, but Elon Musk's SpaceX will usually be the one making the maneuvers.

The idea is to avoid a situation in which both NASA and SpaceX attempt to get out of each other's way at the same time, which could result in a crash.

So while SpaceX's Starlink satellites will adjust their movements to avoid NASA assets, NASA has agreed not to do anything in the event of a potential conjunction unless SpaceX says otherwise.

Space experts use the term "conjunction" to refer to an event in which two objects pass near to each other in space. Such events usually happen at very high speeds, and can be destructive.

The contract also states there may be some situations in which the Starlink satellites are not able to move out of the way. If this is the case, SpaceX will let NASA know that the space agency will have to make the required maneuver instead.

SpaceX's Starlink satellites are equipped with on-board ion thrusters that are capable of moving the satellites around in orbit. The satellites will use these thrusters to move out of the way of NASA spacecraft if it looks like a conjunction is likely based on planned trajectories.

These trajectories are submitted by NASA to the U.S. Air Force 18th Space Control Squadron (18 SPCS) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, which will study them and send them to SpaceX for review.

NASA's acting administrator Stephen Jurczyk said in a statement: "Society depends on space-based capabilities for global communications, navigation, weather forecasting, and much more.

"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."

The agreement was signed by Stephen Jurczyk, NASA's acting administrator, and Lee Rosen, SpaceX's vice president of customer operations and integration.

So far, there are 1,325 of SpaceX's Starlink satellites in orbit, but the company has received regulatory approval from the Federal Communications Commission to deploy up to 12,000.

The Starlink satellites operate by beaming down an internet connection that people can pay for if they wish.

SpaceX Dragon capsule
The SpaceX Dragon resupply ship is pictured approaching the International Space Station in an image uploaded March 9. Both SpaceX and NASA have agreed to work together to avoid in-space collisions regarding Starlink satellites. NASA/Mark Garcia