Space

This startup wants to help space companies navigate increasingly crowded night skies

Privateer debuted in March, and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is its president.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Privateer, Getty Images

· 5 min read

In some ways, the final frontier of space is similar to the Wild West of yore: lawless and full of opportunity.

Northern Sky Research, a space industry consulting firm, projects that the industry will generate over $1.25 trillion in cumulative revenue by 2030. And because the cost of launch has never been lower—thanks to reusability of rockets, cheaper components, and the rise of private space companies—space is getting more and more crowded with those looking to take advantage. That rush of interest has created some congestion, and while the United Nations created an Outer Space Treaty in 1967 to regulate in-orbit conduct, it does not coordinate or enforce how space is utilized.

Privateer, a startup that was founded in 2021 but debuted in early March with an undisclosed amount of funding, is looking to fill that gap. By aggregating data on where satellites are positioned into a single place, it wants to help space companies see where their competition is, avoid collisions between objects and satellites, and track space debris. The company is also looking to eventually deploy its own constellation to assist developers looking to work in space, without the cost associated with building out an independent constellation.

Privateer, based out of Hawaii, is the brainchild of Moriba Jah, an associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas, Ripcord founder Alex Fielding, and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Fielding told us that Privateer hopes to work with companies that do in-orbit servicing, like Japan-based debris cleanup company Astroscale, as well as space developers looking to create APIs without building satellites, although it declined to name existing clients.

“The more that I looked at it, the more depressed I got,” Fielding, who is CEO and chairman of Privateer, told Emerging Tech Brew. “We don’t agree on where things in low-Earth orbit are within an average deviation of a couple hundred kilometers. So how do you dock with something in low-Earth space? Or how do you, even if you could, clean it up?”

Henry Hertzfeld, research professor of space policy and international affairs at George Washington University, who is not involved with Privateer, told Emerging Tech Brew that while the company might not be revolutionizing space with its products, there is a growing market for these types of services.

“The market is going to grow because we’re putting lots more satellites up there, particularly in low-Earth orbit. There are opportunities both to provide the government with better information and to provide other companies with information,” Hertzfeld said. “There’s a limit, but the limit to growth really hasn’t been reached because we still don’t have precision in a lot of that data and information.”

Privateer’s first product is Wayfinder, a real-time visualization of objects in space, from defunct satellites to active constellations and space junk. Wayfinder, which is available for free to anyone, also details each satellite’s orbit, speed, owner, and the source of that data. It’s based in part on ASTRIAgraph, a similar tool Jah developed at UT Austin prior to forming Privateer, Fielding said..

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The company claims its database tracks over 27,000 objects in space—for context, NASA estimates there are over 100 million objects in space that are 1 mm or larger.

The work of space-junk tracking and removal has historically been left to government institutions like NASA and the Department of Defense, but in recent years, private enterprises like LeoLabs, Slingshot Aerospace, Astroscale, and ComSpoc have ventured into the industry, offering awareness services and, in Astroscale’s case, piloting technology to one day focus on removal.

“The importance of tracking and characterizing stuff and being able to say, “Here’s evidence of how we’ve behaved and what the intended and maybe unintended consequences are.” I think that helps inform ways that we can try to…turn things around so that we can not lose the ability to use space,” Jah, who serves as chief scientist at Privateer, told Emerging Tech Brew in an interview last September about ASTRIAgraph, Wayfinder’s predecessor.

Using Wayfinder as its foundation, Fielding said the company also plans to offer a collision avoidance service called Relssek, Kessler (as in Kessler effect) spelled backward. The first 24 hours of tracking will be freely available for anyone to access, while any projections up to 72 hours are available for companies to purchase, he said. Relssek is expected to be released this spring, per Fielding.

Privateer also eventually hopes to build its own constellation of its “Pono” satellites, Fielding said.

Pono, the Hawaiian word for “righteousness” or “balance,” is intended to be an API for space-based app developers who want to work in space without the costs of managing a constellation. According to Fielding, the Pono satellites will be designed and outfitted with 42 sensors and 13 cameras. Pono-1 is scheduled to launch later this year, SpaceNews reports, and Fielding said the company plans to eventually charge developers based on how much work they do with the system, ranging from completely free to what he claims would be one tenth of the cost of building and launching a new constellation.

“It’s pretty complicated, even today, to launch stuff in space. And it’s definitely cumbersome. it’s definitely time consuming and a giant overhead. So I think if we kill this off, and if we do it successfully, we’re also going to radically reduce the amount of trash on orbit, because we'll radically reduce the number of things on orbit,” Fielding said.

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