Charting our Orbits with Privateer

There is junk aplenty in space and Steve Wozniak’s new space startup, Privateer, has set its eyes on mapping them.

Ever since Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, was parked in orbit in 1957, the human race has seen a great many innovations in the space industry over the decades. From sending man into space and to the moon to establishing the International Space Station (ISS) for research, we have never hesitated to make our mark in the cosmos.

But over the years, engrossed in making the most of the new space age with our advanced technologies and impeccable engineering, we may have overlooked another impact we have made in the room — space debris. In recent times, the issue of space debris has emerged more often, especially after fateful events that have disrupted satellite services and endangered spaceflights.

​​The European Space Agency noted that approximately 36,500 pieces of space junk more than 10 centimeters wide, 1 million fragments of debris between 1 and 10 centimeters wide, and 330 million scraps smaller than 1 centimeter engulf Earth in its orbit. When these shards of junk travel at an epic speed of 27,500 km/hour, the jeopardy, our space missions are put into, is serious.

Despite the sizes of the debris ranging from as large as parts of rocket stages to as tiny as paint chips, this problem is not a minor collateral damage to our space endeavours. This space pollution is a growing trend that is fast becoming a major threat to future missions.

In efforts to right the wrongs we did (and are doing) to our orbital environment, there are companies dedicated to sweeping up the litter floating in our crowded orbit. This initiative is important. In the same vein, September saw Apple’s co-founder, Steve Wozniak’s, tweet on launching a space company unlike others — Privateer.

Though it may seem like a space garbage pickup service right off the bat, the startup’s focus is on establishing situational awareness in space to lay the building block for cleaning up the orbit. In other words, we need to be able to see and assess the scrap before being able to clean it up. According to Privateer’s co-founder, Alex Fielding, the company aims to (Source: TechCrunch) be the “Google Maps of space” and close the gap between situational awareness and the clean up process.

So, the new Hawaii-based space venture is looking to track space debris by sending its own constellation of satellites to monitor the pieces of junk to gather sufficient data for the clean up. This dataset, which will include details on the size and speed of the debris, will prove to be vital in the journey to clear the mess we made.

Everyday, with operating space assets travelling in company with space debris in orbit, we edge closer and closer towards another space accident. The last one, in May, had the astronauts on the ISS find a five-millimeter hole in the arm of one of the station’s modules. Incidents like this worries Fielding, who believes that without a company, like Privateer, mapping orbital junk, we may be hurtling towards the first on-orbit human casualty caused by space debris.

With no time to waste, Privateer is set to launch its first satellite, Pono 1, on the 11th of February, 2022, followed by Pono 2 in April. It is high time we take responsibility and protect our space environment along with our future in safe and sustainable space missions.

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