A Start-Up Is Monitoring Space Junk to Enable a More Sustainable Space Economy
In February 2009, some 500 miles above the Siberian tundra, a defunct Russian satellite and a U.S. communication satellite collided with massive force and shattered to pieces. Circulating low Earth orbit at speeds north of 20,000 miles per hour, the two instantly broke into thousands of fragments of aluminum and titanium space junk. Of these bits of debris hurtling at hypervelocity, only a fraction of them were large enough to be accurately tracked. And of those roughly 2,000 fragments that have been tracked, they’ll continue circulating for anywhere from 20 to a hundred years or more from the time of impact.
This first and, as of now, only instance of cross-satellite collision remains an anomaly in humanity’s use of space, but as agencies around the world raced to make sure the enormous influx of debris didn’t pose a threat to their satellites, it reignited a longstanding concern in the exploration and use of space.
Looking up at the night sky, perhaps one sees constellations of stars, serene and untouchable in their distance. Perhaps one sees nothing more than a vast black emptiness. In either case, it suggests space as a world undisturbed, free from the type of gross material accumulation that exists here on Earth. As with many notions of the distant unknown, the impression of a pristine, unpolluted beyond is, to a large degree, a fantasy. Within low Earth orbit—a zone roughly 100 to 1,200 miles above the Earth’s surface, where the majority of satellites circulate—some 95 percent of the objects revolving there are space junk. Rocket bodies, defunct satellites, and, most of all, fragmentation debris zip along at speeds many times that of a bullet from a gun—next to the very machines that play a vital role in facilitating everything from our phone calls to our GPS systems to the stock market.
“The biggest problem isn’t technical or political; it’s the absence of empathy,” says Dr. Moriba Jah, a space scientist and orbital mechanics professor who’s dedicated the brunt of his academic career to researching and educating the public on the issue of space junk. “Most people that you talk to about space junk will say, ‘Well, that’s not my problem, I’m here on Earth.’”
What’s at stake—essentially, the infrastructure holding up nearly every aspect of 21st-century digital life, not to mention the viability of future space exploration—does not fit easily into the idea of scrap metal or specs of paint circulating at thousands of meters per second above the Earth. Not finding adequate funding within the walls of academia or sufficient urgency among the halls of the government, Jah found support for his cause from a rather unlikely source: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who announced via tweet in late 2021 that he, following the trend of many Silicon Valley figures and billionaires in recent years, was launching a space startup, Privateer, with his friend and past business partner, Ripcord Inc. founder Alex Fielding. The company’s self-purported mission? To create “the data infrastructure that will enable sustainable growth for the new space economy.” The first—and most critical—component of that data structure will be to accurately track the objects currently congesting Earth’s orbit.
“We’re at a clear inflection point and facing exponential growth of space commercialization,” Wozniak told CNN earlier this year. “Having a better, global understanding of what’s already up in space is critical to powering the new space economy.” This shared sense of urgency led Fielding and Wozniak to reach out to Jah, and to bring him on as Privateer’s chief scientist.
This inflection point heading toward exponential growth that Wozniak speaks of for space commercialization recalls another, grimmer turning point in the use of space that has stood for decades as a sobering hypothetical. In the 1970s, NASA scientist Donald Kessler authored a paper on the implications of increasing numbers of spacecrafts and satellites being sent into orbit. It described a feedback loop of sorts where, with increased orbital congestion, the likelihood of collision increases, and when collision occurs, the resulting influx of space junk in the form of debris further increases the chances of subsequent collisions and its byproducts—the cycle repeating and accelerating again and again, until the congestion of man-made material circulating the Earth becomes a greater hazard to space navigation than its natural meteor environment. This cascading growth in space debris came to be known as the Kessler Syndrome. While the severe level of congestion predicted in Kessler’s paper is yet to occur, the amount of space junk in low Earth orbit has grown at rates far faster than the force of Earth’s atmospheric drag can balance out. A perpetual boogeyman within the world of space exploration, Kessler’s paper serves as a warning of a scenario in which space travel and satellite use could become hindered for generations to come.
Unlike the ventures of, say, Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Privateer isn’t looking to increase the number of spacecraft in orbit. Rather, it’s using data on the ground to approach the issue of space junk from a harm-reduction perspective. A sort of risk manager for outer space, Privateer aims to improve the tracking of what’s already out there, lowering the risks of future collisions, and with that, the risks of further accelerating a congestion crisis.
The organization officially began last March with Wayfinder, a tracking application that gives everyone from satellite operators to casual observers access to a comprehensive collection of data on satellites and debris in Earth’s orbit in the form of an interactive 3-D map. As Jah has pointed out, information about what’s in orbit is not commonly shared across governments, space agencies, and academic institutions. Wayfinder tries to address this by aggregating data from four major sources: U.S. Space Command, Planet Labs, JSC Vimpel, and SeeSat-L. Speaking on how Wayfinder arrives at a more accurate picture of the state of space debris than other isolated sources, Jah says, “How do you know that you have the world’s most accurate clock? The answer is, you have hundreds of them. Bringing in independent sources that are disparate from each other, you can develop a statistical consistency.”
Since launching Wayfinder, Privateer has also released Crow’s Nest, a free risk assessment service that uses Wayfinder’s data collection alongside NASA’s own tools for probability analysis to predict the likelihood of collision for any given orbit or route. Like Wayfinder itself, the service is accessible to anyone.
“I think the motivation, especially for somebody like Steve, is in seeing some of the benefits of what Apple has been able to do for the world,” Jah says. “The iPhone is a platform, and it has brought developers from all over the world to make apps that do some really cool things.” Looking at the future of Privateer, Jah hopes the company’s platforms can serve as a similar inspiration. With Wayfinder as just the start, he sees hope for developments such as expanding the description of objects in space beyond generic spheres and better quantifying who’s liable for debris in circulation.
Which concrete direction the company takes next, only time will tell, but as a push for space commercialization takes hold—perhaps fueled more than a little by a sense of futility for the future of planet Earth—Privateer can hopefully serve as a necessary reminder for an emboldened industry not to repeat the messes we’ve created on the ground up above.