In another question I asked How often do active satellites have to change course to avoid other active satellites?.

The idea behind the question was to understand which party is actively avoiding collisions and whether there are strategic decisions at play.

My question now is, in the event that both spacecraft are able to maneuver, how do satellite operators negotiate which satellite will conduct an avoidance maneuver? Do they wait for the other party to make the first move, e.g., by avoiding communications or something similar, in order to benefit from not having to spend fuel/do other costly maneuvers?

Or are all satellite operators super cooperative and likely to discuss and simply try to find the easiest way possible to reduce collision probabilities? Or would they bargain for a deal in these cases? Is political pressure applied often?

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    $\begingroup$ searching news from Fall 2021 for things like "complaints Starlink avoid collision did not respond" will return events and comments related to SpaceX, US and Chinese governments, NASA, CNSA, ESA space agencies, United Nations etc. However I don't think that "playing chicken" was ever proposed as a productive or accurate way to view the situation(s). $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jul 14, 2022 at 1:24

1 Answer 1


Yes and no, if one satellite has the ability to change course and the other doesn't then the one which does moves.

Likewise if neither has thrust then all the operators can do is cross their fingers

The issue comes in when both have the ability to change course as nobody wants to change course because:

  • satellites have only a limited amount of fuel for a limited number of manoeuvres
  • whenever thrusters are fired there is a risk of something going wrong
  • changing course almost always disrupts or stops operations

Therefore both operators want the other to be the one to change course, often this is resolved by one company just paying the other to be the one to change course. But as there are no laws governing who has to move yes, if the companies can't come to some kind of deal it does just become a game of chicken.

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    $\begingroup$ It would be really interesting if you could put sources or cite any incidents as examples of the possibilities you've mentioned. Especially the third case where both satellites have active propulsion. $\endgroup$ Jul 15, 2022 at 9:38
  • $\begingroup$ Yes the third case is exactly what I'm looking at! Do we have any indications of what is happening in these cases? I'm only aware of SpaceX/ESA and the above mentioned Starlink/China $\endgroup$
    – Adrian
    Jul 15, 2022 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ This is Scott manley on the subject youtube.com/watch?v=RJcnQq8XDoY&t=500s other than that I'm not really sure what to give you. The very point is there isn't a law so there isn't really a source for this, as for examples just look at the twitters of some of the major companies and you'll see updates all the time $\endgroup$
    – Pioneer_11
    Jul 18, 2022 at 1:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Adrian other than the face off between spaceX and ESA I don't really know but I'd assume it is typically pretty peaceful. Both parties have an incentive to get it figured out as soon as possible (the fact that the delta V needed for a collision avoidance manoeuvre decreases the sooner it's made) and getting into a game of chicken just makes everyone involved look petty and stupid. $\endgroup$
    – Pioneer_11
    Jul 20, 2022 at 11:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Adrian if you're looking for some more solid data I would check out either the social media of satellite operators (as if anyone does something particularly obnoxious to a competitor the competitor will probably stick it up there) or else hit up some of the Youtubers ScottManley, Everyday astronaut e.t.c. as people tend to send stories to them all the time. There's no guarantee of a response (they must get a lot of emails after all) but I doubt they'd be particularly annoyed $\endgroup$
    – Pioneer_11
    Jul 20, 2022 at 22:22

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