Innovation

How Apple’s co-founder plans to solve a major space problem

Steve Wozniak is looking to make space into a better place. Here's how Privateer Space plans to do that.

Space is messy, and Apple’s co-founder wants to clean it up.

Earlier this month, Steve Wozniak unveiled plans via Twitter to launch a new space company. Privateer Space launched with a relatively vague website and teaser trailer, but evidence suggests it will focus on cleaning up space junk.

The prospect could resolve a significant issue with humanity’s growing presence in space. As more companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab increase access to rocket flights, satellite developers are taking advantage to launch more developments than ever. Researchers have warned about the potential for a cascading series of collisions dubbed “Kessler syndrome.”

If humanity wants to keep expanding into space, it may have to consider how it tackles the issue.

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Space junk and debris: what’s the problem?

Space is getting full. Christopher Newman, professor of Space Law and Policy at Northumbria University, noted that there were 1,738 active satellites in orbit back in July 2018. As of May 2021, the Union of Concerned Scientists claims there are now 4,084 operational satellites.

SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, designed to provide internet service, aims to launch up to 42,000 satellites alone.

All this could lead to collisions in space. Jim Bridenstine, a former NASA administrator, said in September 2020 that the International Space Station had to maneuver three times to avoid debris over the previous nine months.

It could cause a major international issue. Donald Kessler is famed for coining “Kessler Syndrome,” the possibility that objects in Earth’s orbit would eventually collide with each other, break up into smaller pieces, and continue colliding in a cascading effect.

Privateer Space: what do we know so far?

Of the two Steves that co-founded Apple in 1976, Wozniak is probably the less famous. After stepping back from Apple in 1985 — he claimed in 2018 he never left the employee list — he participated in a series of business ventures, including solid-state storage firm Fusion-Io.

In 2009, Wozniak participated in Dancing with the Stars — perhaps the closest to a space-related mission before Privateer. Former showrunner Conrad Green claimed in 2015 that he was chosen “because he was the most left-field booking imaginable.”

On September 13, 2021, another left-field piece of Wozniak news. On his Twitter page, he wrote that “a private space company is starting up, unlike the others.” It included a link to a teaser trailer for the company, where a voiceover said that it’s “up to us to work together to do what is right and what is good.”

The trailer also revealed that Alex Fielding, who co-founded paperless-focused firm Ripcord, is also a co-founder of Privateer Space.

It all seems rather vague, but Gizmodo reported after the reveal that Privateer was mentioned in a press release one month prior. Desktop Metal, a Massachusetts-based 3D printing firm, quoted Wozniak in an August press release about its new titanium printing abilities:

“3D printing with titanium is incredibly valuable in industries like aerospace because of the material’s ability to support complex and lightweight designs,” said Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Privateer Space, a new satellite company focused on monitoring and cleaning up objects in space.

The quote goes on to praise Desktop Metal, as “the team at Privateer Space will be able to achieve the affordability and lightweighting capabilities needed to pave the way for our satellite design and launch.”

“We have an amazing opportunity to collaborate and keep space accessible for future generations,” Wozniak is quoted as saying.

A space cleanup company that’s planning a satellite launch to clean up the skies — but it’s not the only company thinking about these issues.

Space junk and debris: who else is taking action?

Privateer is not the only firm on the case. The SpaceFund industry tracker lists 37 companies involved in debris mitigation.

In March 2021, space debris removal firm Astroscale — the highest-scored debris removal company in SpaceFund’s tracker — launched a demonstration of its removal system that could capture satellites and de-orbit together:

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggested that its under-development Starship rocket could also be used to “chomp up debris.”

In June 2021, the British government announced up to £800,000 ($1.1 million) in funding for developing ideas for space debris removal missions.

As Earth’s orbit becomes more crowded, it’s a question that could grow increasingly important.

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