Moriba Jah will leverage his work developing AstriaGraph, a tool for visualizing objects in orbit using a variety of data sources, to support Privateer. Credit: AstriaGraph

DUBAI, U.A.E. — A space sustainability startup still largely in stealth mode has hired a leading “space environmentalist” as its chief scientific adviser as it develops satellites to track objects in orbit.

Privateer announced last month it selected Moriba Jah, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin as its chief scientific adviser. Jah will remain at the university as he assists the company build up its capabilities.

Hawaii-based Privateer has kept a low profile to date, other than the release of a one-minute video in September that explained that the company was “working to keep space safe and accessible to all humankind.” The company was a sponsor of the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies, or AMOS, conference in Hawaii that month, but maintained a low profile beyond placing its logo on coffee cups during a break at the conference.

While Privateer was initially thought to be working on orbital debris removal technologies, the company is instead focused on better monitoring of satellites and other objects in orbit. “We want to focus on decision intelligence,” Jah said in an interview during the 72nd International Astronautical Congress. “How do we enable these things and do so in a way that makes space more transparent, makes space more predictable and can develop a body of evidence to help people and hold them accountable for their behaviors.”

Jah has developed AstriaGraph, a visualization tool that combines space situational awareness data from a several sources. AstriaGraph will be the core of Privateer’s efforts, he said, creating a “multisourced digital commons of stuff in space.”

Privateer will augment that with data from a constellation of satellites it plans to develop. Its first prototype satellite, Pono-1, will launch early next year. The three-unit cubesat will carry a variety of sensors to track and characterize space objects.

“That’s going to be a demonstrator of some of those things,” such as both optical and multispectral sensors. “Some things are going to work, some things probably aren’t, and we’ll learn from that.”

Future satellites might grow to six-unit cubesats, he said, but the company seeks to follow the model of Planet, which developed a constellation of imaging cubesats. “We’re definitely inspired by what Planet has done in proliferated sensing, so that’s something we’re looking at,” he said.

The uses of such data go beyond simply predicting conjunctions, Jah said. It can assist astronomers attempting to mitigate the effects of satellites on their observations, as well as government agencies working to provide the “continuing supervision” of space activities under Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty. Being able to characterize objects with details like their shape and spin rate, he added, can help companies developing technologies to remove orbital debris.

Some of the data Privateer collects will go into AstriaGraph, he said, which will continue to be freely available. “Some sort of commercial version of that will be the thing that Privateer offers,” he said, with value-added services on top of the data.

Jah said he was drawn to working with Privateer after discussions with its founders — Alex Fielding, who co-founded technology company Ripcord, and Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple — because of a shared interest in space environmentalism. “They said they want to build Privateer around that, and that meant a lot to me,” he said.

“We are so proud to have a scientist and human of Moriba’s caliber joining the Privateer team,” Wozniak said in a statement. “His knowledge of this issue is only exceeded by his passion for building solutions to address it.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...