The Woz against space debris: Apple co-founder’s new venture aims to track debris

By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business

Steve Wozniak has a new — and potentially lucrative — passion: space debris.

But the money, according to Wozniak’s co-founder in this new venture, couldn’t be further from the point. “I don’t think Steve [Wozniak] doesn’t care if I make 10 cents more, and I really don’t care,” Alex Fielding, a longtime acquaintance of Wozniak who will serve as CEO of the new venture, called Privateer, told CNN Business.

Privateer’s mission is to develop better tracking of objects in space and use that data to help avoid disastrous collisions.

To help with this effort, Wozniak and Fielding enlisted Moriba Jah, a Ph. debris and trash in the outdoor area. space out.

It’s a threat that could wipe out satellites that provide communications services to Earth or even bring space travel to a screeching halt. It is conducted research at the University of Texas. It is appeared at congressional hearings. It is recommended for change on the world stage. But Jah told CNN Business that he recently came to a solemn conclusion: there isn’t enough funding in academia to develop the technologies he envisions for the world. the problem of space wastehe says.

So, Jah went in search of that funding. And that led him to Wozniak, the coding scholar who co-founded Apple with Steve Jobs.

The trio aren’t chasing the same dreams as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Privateer won’t develop flashy new rockets or launch people to the stars. Instead, it will focus solely on combating the looming threat of debris in Earth’s orbit, millions of pieces of which are flying out of control, threatening to destroy active satellites they may come into contact with. This is a question that is gaining more and more attention as the number of active satellites in space has proliferated in recent years.

The ever-looming risk is that collisions between objects in space can set off disastrous chain reactions, spawning dangerous clouds of debris. Too much junk in an orbital field can render it useless. And too much trash around the Earth could lead to a day when launching a rocket orbiting is just too dangerous.

“We are at a clear inflection point and facing exponential growth in the commercialization of space,” Wozniak told CNN Business via email. “Having a better global understanding of what is already happening in space is key to propelling the new space economy.”

On Tuesday, Privateer officially leaves “stealth mode” and launches the first version of its software, which will monitor traffic in space. In interviews with CNN Business, the founders laid out a grand vision, with the goals of creating the kind of database that space traffic experts — including governments — currently only dream of.

Whether Privateer can actually build such a database and earn enough money to support it is open to question. Fielding declined to comment on the amount of money the company has raised so far, though he noted Wozniak has put funds behind it and said Privateer will be looking for additional backing “relatively soon.”

But at the heart of the enterprise, according to Jah and Fielding, is a desire to address what they see as an environmental crisis plaguing outer space.

privateer software

“There’s a real need for us here on Earth who don’t work in the space industry to start understanding how space debris affects us every day,” Wozniak said. “Many of us do not realize how much our lives depend on the services provided from and through space – GPS services, financial transactions, climate monitoring. Our life on Earth is linked to space and even the most small pieces of debris orbiting the Earth can damage and destroy these essential capabilities for some of the most fundamental aspects of our daily lives.

At the heart of his new venture, Privateer, is software that evolved from that which Jah created at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is still an associate professor. The software attempts to take all available debris data in space – collected from ground-based radars and, possibly, Privateer’s own satellites – and synthesize it into the world’s clearest image of the place where things are in orbit.

Much of the data will be publicly available, as it will be on the Privateer website today. But the program also aims to give satellite operators accurate information that could help them confidently avoid potential collisions in space or even help navigate spacecraft that may one day catch garbage and make it. out of orbit is where the lucrative side comes in. Satellite operators hoping to ensure their satellites aren’t on a collision course, Privateer hopes, will pay for the expertise Privateer gives them. ready. (Fieling declined to share specific prices.)

There are already services that attempt to do this. The US government has long been the world’s de facto space traffic policeman, maintaining the largest catalog of objects in space and alerting satellite operators – via email service – to potential collisions. A few commercial services also exist, including LeoLabs and Analytical Graphics Inc., or AGI.

But Jah and Fielding said Privateer plans to find information others aren’t looking for, making their database more accurate. They hope to build a catalog so detailed that it will not only show where a piece of space junk is, but also tell you what its shape and size is and where the junk came from – i.e. is it a piece of that missing Russian satellite that collided with an American telecom satellite in 2009? Or shrapnel Chinese Where Russian or a US military exercise in which they blew up their own satellites?

All of this information could be crucial not only to better predict the trajectory of space debris and avoid future accidental collisions in space, but also to help identify culpability. As things stand, for most debris in space, we have no idea who created it, which makes responsibility on the international geopolitical scene almost impossible to distribute.

Eventually, Privateer also hopes to deploy a series of satellites that will use sensors capable of monitoring even the smallest debris – currently elusive trash smaller than 10cm. They plan to call the satellites Pono, a Hawaiian word that roughly translates to “do the right thing”.

Fielding said the company could have its first assets in space this year by placing its sensors on a satellite already slated for launch. Privateer could launch its own custom Pono satellites in coming years as needed to fill in blind spots, Fielding said.

If successful, they could provide an unprecedented picture of the evolution of our orbital environment.

For too long the world has been flying blind, Jah said.

“My hope – if I want to dream big – is that Privateer provides information that helps humanity learn more about itself and motivates people to think of themselves as stewards and stewards of the environment,” said Yah. “Stewardship is something we all need to embrace.”

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