Privateer unveils technology for improved tracking of space objects
WASHINGTON — A new venture that emerged from stealth this week promises better information about objects in orbit and more tailored space situational awareness services for satellite operators.
Privateer, based in Maui, Hawaii, unveiled its first product March 1, a visualization tool called Wayfinder that combines data from several sources, including data from U.S. Space Command and data provided directly by satellite operators.
Wayfinder is based on ASTRIAGraph, a similar web application developed by Moriba Jah, a University of Texas at Austin professor who is also chief scientist of Privateer. “It’s a rearchitecting of ASTRIAGraph,” he said in an interview. “ASTRIAGraph is always going to exist, but this is going to be a branch off of that.”
He described Wayfinder as a demonstration of other space traffic management capabilities that Privateer can provide. “Wayfinder will be this platform, a kind of Waze app, that people can build different services on top of,” he said. One example would be adding information about the characteristics of objects, in addition to their orbits, which would be valuable for companies planning satellite servicing or debris removal activities.
One of those applications will be a conjunction screening service Privateer is developing, the company’s chief executive, Alex Fielding, said in an interview. The company is working with operators of satellite constellations to get trajectory information about their satellites to improve the accuracy of their predictions.
Privateer will provide some of that information for free. “We’ll give away 24 hours ahead, and we’ll sell when you need to see farther ahead,” he said, such as up to 72 hours in low Earth orbit and seven days in geostationary orbit. “We think it’s fair to give away 24 hours ahead and charge for something more bespoke and more advanced.”
Those bespoke solutions include providing tailored information to operators, allowing them access to just their orbits of interest through application programming interfaces or APIs. “It used to be you had to buy the whole catalog,” Fielding said. “It’s like if you want a croissant, you had to buy the bakery.”
The company is open to collecting data from a wide range of sources. “We’ll use anybody’s assets that are already there,” he said.
Privateer is also working on space-based systems to track objects. The company is completing work on a three-unit cubesat called Pono-1, scheduled to launch later this year, that will carry 42 sensors. “That’s mostly going to be a technology demonstration,” said Jah. “We’ll see what data we can get back from this and what makes sense.”
Fielding said Privateer is interested in flying future systems as hosted payloads on other satellites rather than building its own constellation. “We really don’t want to create more stuff in space.” Such payloads, he said, could enable more accurate and persistent tracking of objects in LEO.
The third co-founder of Privateer is Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple. “We’re at a clear inflection point and facing exponential growth of space commercialization,” he said in a statement. “At Privateer, we see this turning point as a real opportunity to lead and educate people about space sustainability and, for space operators, help ensure their safety and sustainability.”
Privateer is the latest company in a growing sector of the space industry focused on tracking and characterizing objects in orbit and providing services, such as collision warnings, to satellite operators. That growth stands in contrast to the much slower progress on government efforts, like the development of an open architecture data repository, or OADR, by the Office of Space Commerce that will be part of its efforts to take over civil space traffic management responsibilities in 2024.
A former director of that office says that those growing commercial capabilities mean it’s time to reevaluate cooperation between the public and private sectors. “Private sector activities have a way of keeping up with the problem at speed in a way that governments do not,” said Kevin O’Connell, who served as director from 2018 to 2021, in a March 2 keynote at a space traffic management conference organized by the International Academy of Astronautics and the University of Texas at Austin. O’Connell is now an adviser to several companies in this sector, including Privateer.
“What’s changing very rapidly right now is the potential character of any public private partnerships in this area as private sector capabilities leap forward and government approaches remain very conventional,” he said. “U.S. government funding towards this problem remains insufficient to the urgency and the importance of the task, and the impressive advance of the commercial sector in this area means that the government should immediately move to leverage these capabilities.”