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Wozniak startup to share orbital space junk data

Privateer to help avoid collisions and more debris around our planet

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak opened up about his space startup Privateer at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia this week.

Privateer's mission is to build software that taps into data from various sources to track objects in Earth orbit, which includes satellites and debris that could potentially damage or even destroy those satellites.

It seems Privateer wants to gather up this information and share it with national space agencies, companies, lawmakers, regulators, and so on, so that the records can be used to avoid collisions and make better decisions about our use of space. To do this, Privateer has built a data engine, or proprietary knowledge graph technology as it likes to call it, that collects and processes this object information for others to use.

Woz said Privateer was actually started by a friend, Alex Fielding, who is now CEO, while he has taken the role of president.

"My best friend, the best man at my wedding, Alex Fielding, started this company and it was largely based on talking to other people in the academic spheres, of trying to study and analyse all the space junk, the space refuse, the satellites that are up there. We have nothing that tells us everything that's up there very well," Woz said.

The first fruit of this is a web app called Wayfinder, which is built on Privateer's data engine and provides an open-access and near real-time visualization of known objects in orbit.

There has been growing concern that orbiting space debris poses a huge threat to satellites providing services such as communications and environmental monitoring, and may even render Earth orbit too dangerous for manned missions such as the International Space Station.

Yet according to a report published over 18 months ago, it's estimated that as much as three-quarters of the orbital debris in geosynchronous orbits around Earth is not being tracked. This debris could come from old satellites, rockets and debris from catastrophic satellite fails.

There have been some efforts at creating technologies that can be used to clean Earth orbit of debris or defunct satellites, such as the magnetic system being trialed by a Japanese company mentioned by New Scientist. Other solutions include giant nets or harpooning objects to capture them.

But dealing with the problem has to start with knowing where the debris is, according to Woz.

"You think, OK, there's an effort here that's going to go up and maybe find a way to bring space refuse down to Earth, but it's very difficult to spot the dangerous small particles less than 10cm3.

"It's very difficult to spot those and they're travelling at 1,000 times the speed of a bullet. So, they're very dangerous," he said.

Our lives depend on things that come from satellites, our navigation systems, a lot of our television, a lot of our internet, our phone calls from country to country, go through satellites

"Our lives depend on things that come from satellites, our navigation systems, a lot of our television, a lot of our internet, our phone calls from country to country, go through satellites."

Woz hinted that Privateer is planning to launch its own satellites to help track objects in orbit. Meanwhile, having the ability to map and collate all of the data is vital.

"There are a lot of people actually thinking, what if we could clean up some of this stuff that's floating around space that might knock a satellite out that's an important part of our lives," he said.

"You know, things that we actually use and do, knocked out by accident, and a lot of people are talking that way because the cost has come way down to launch very small satellites with lots of sensors, and that's one of the things our Privateer is doing, but we are starting by saying we've got to map.

"We are largely focusing on space junk, but that means we got to track, to know the countries that have equipment up in space that can measure it, and spot it and detect it. They['ve] got to share their information. We need worldwide standards so that some of it can be understood."

His speech at the conference wasn't all about Privateer. In response to a question about what drives him, Woz said it wasn't about money.

"A lot of people have huge monetary success in business and it changes them – now they want to make much more wealth, more power, have more power over things," he said. "That was not my goal. My goal was just to create the greatest products of the time as an engineer. I didn't want to lose my values." ®

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