The ESA has announced that its Earth-observing satellite called Aeolus had to fire its thrusters to avoid a potential collision with one of the satellites in the SpaceX Starlink mega constellation. The ESA stated that the avoidance maneuver took place only half an orbit before the collision could have occurred. Space agencies all around the world track satellites and space debris in hopes of avoiding a collision.
The SpaceX satellite was put into orbit on May 23 and is part of 60 satellites that were the first to launch in the Starlink mega constellation. Eventually, the constellation of satellites will be comprised of almost 12,000 units. Each of the SpaceX satellites weighs 500 pounds and a single collision with another satellite could create debits, potentially setting off a domino effect of other satellites being hit and creating more debris.
Such an accident could make low-Earth orbit a much more hazardous space to work in. The ESA Space Debris Office was in charge of the maneuver and said that it took a significant amount of time to prepare. The ESA has stated that as space debris increases and more satellites are placed in orbit, human-managed avoidance will need to be replaced with AI guided maneuvers.
The ESA says that after the avoidance maneuver was completed, the Aeolus satellite was able to make contact as usual and transmit science data. The ESA also noted this was the first time that it had ever had to reposition one of its satellites to avoid an object belonging to a mega constellation. Low Earth Orbits have been changed many times to avoid potential hazards. In 2018, the ESA performed 28 collision avoidance maneuvers.