There are thousands of pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth right now. How can we make space safer?
Thanks for joining me for Your Space Journey. In today’s episode, we’ll explore the growing problem of space chunk and how the new company, Privateer Space is working to help make space safer. Joining us today is Dr. Morova Jah, the chief scientist of Privateer. Morova is a cofounder of Privateer, along with the company’s CEO, Alex Fielding and the company’s President, Steve Wozniak. Morova is a renowned astrodynamicist, a space environmentalist, and an associate professor at the University of Texas. As Privateer’s chief scientist, he is the visionary behind Privateer’s, innovative technology that will help make space operators to maneuver safely and effectively as orbital highways continue to become even more congested.
Moriba, I’ve been so impressed. One of your recent Ted talks, you mentioned that as an astrodynamicist, you could compare what you do to the awesome character Rich Purnell in the movie The Martian. I’d love that analogy. Can you describe for your audience what is an astrodynamicist?
Moriba: Yeah. So astrodynamics is the science that studies motion of stuff in space. And so basically we try to say, look, if we have some satellite, rocket body or planets, asteroid, whatever, and it’s in space and there’s a bunch of other bodies and this thing is subject to all sorts of forces, how’s the thing going to behave? Is it going to tumble? How’s it going to tumble? How’s it going to move? Where the thing is going to be a week from now, months, years from now? That’s what I do.
Chuck: Excellent. Well, before we talk about that amazing field, I do want to go back because one thing we love to do is talk about people’s space journeys. And you particularly have a very interesting story. I believe you were born in the US. Then as a young child, you moved to Venezuela, then later became member of the US Air Force, I believe, and had a very interesting experience in Montana that sort of piqued your interest in space. I was wondering if you could describe that a little bit more.
Moriba: Yeah. Look, so I went to a military boarding school in Venezuela and that instilled a lot of structure and discipline, these things in my life. But yeah, after graduating from there, I came back to United States and enlisted in the US Air Force. And I became a security policeman. And part of my duties as a security policeman were to guard Intercontinental ballistic missiles in Montana. And having grown up in Caracas, Venezuela. Caracas is a multimillion person city with high towers, skyscrapers, lots of lights. So on a good night on a good night in Caracas, you might be able to see the moon, you don’t see a whole lot more than that. And in my life, until Montana, I’d never been in a place with such dark skies and doing my night shifts. In Montana, I was extremely mesmerized with the night sky and felt very connected. It’s like, I’m like, wow, we’re not alone in the universe. Like, the universe is populated. Like, everywhere I look, it’s just dots of light, which was really cool. But then I noticed that there were dots of light that were actually moving. They weren’t planes, they weren’t meteors. And some of these dots of light were disappearing in the middle of the sky. Made me think I was crazy. I thought these things might be UFOs. I didn’t have any other explanation. Maybe God was trying to talk to me in some mysterious way. And by really chasing my curiosity a little bit, turns out that these things were human made objects in Earth orbit, reflecting sunlight. And when they disappeared in the middle of the sky is because they went through Earth’s shadow, they became eclipsed by the Earth, and so they weren’t shining light anymore. And I was like, wow, I think I need to know more about that.
Chuck: I think that’s incredible. And I was thinking too, sometimes I just wish everyone could see what it’s like because I grew up in city too. Lots of light pollution, you might see three stars, if you’re lucky, or the moon. And then to be transported and look up and see the universe in its glory and see things that you just can’t explain until you know it. It’s something amazing. Is that what sort of led you into again, another wonderful thing that you do is space environmentalist.
Moriba: Yeah. So the idea of space environmentalism for me came out of the work that I did on Maui. So I worked for NASA Jet Propulsion Lab out of graduate school. So from 1999 to 2006 is when I worked for JPL, but then went to Maui in 2006 to work for the Air Force Research Laboratory. So my focus shifted away from Mars missions to stuff orbiting the Earth and given two things. One, telescopes on top of Mount Haleyakala track things orbiting the Earth. And I became acquainted with Earth’s space debris problem. And it was like 96% of all the things that we were tracking, we’re tracking a couple of tens of thousands of pieces ranging in size from cell phone to the space station. At the time, 96% of that was garbage, like pieces of broken satellites, Rockets, bodies, and these sorts of things. And that juxtaposed with how on Maui you have native Hawaiians that embrace stewardship and interconnectedness, and you have colonialism, which went more towards ownership of things and the detriment of that mentality. And how Maui maximizes single use plastics and has landfills. So I think a seed got planted. I started seeing direct analogies between lack of sustainability and ocean land, and then space and then a couple of years later, I went to Alaska, took my son Denali there with me so he could see where his name came from and saw some very similar things there. And I had an inner shift. My inner space shifted. And I felt an inner calling to try to, I guess, prevent humanity from forgetting this intergenerational contract of stewardship and that all things are interconnected. And would I be willing to do anything I could to do that? And so a space environmentalist was born.
Chuck: I truly love that. I think it’s so neat and it’s one of those subjects that unfortunately, I think we put our blinders on a lot. We have alot of space junk. You mentioned there’s 27,000 plus pieces that you’re tracking the size of the cell phone and up. But if you take that down to, I believe, like a fleck of paint down to 1 mm, how many millions is that?
Moriba: Yeah, exactly. So the thing is, because we don’t measure these things directly, there’s kind of wide hypotheses, but for sure, I think the smallest number hypothesizes is over a million. And the thing is, these things can be traveling up to like 15 times the speed of a bullet relative to something else. And bullets caused a lot of damage at the speed of a bullet, something that even half the size of a bullet traveling 15 times the speed of a bullet. I mean, that hits an astronaut suit and it’s a bad day.
Chuck: It is a bad day. Is that what led you to, again, another software package that was really impressed that you built ASTRIAGraph you designed this web application to help sort of visualize the objects that we’re tracking up there? I believe you did that for the University of Texas, is that correct?
Moriba: Yeah. Right. So the FAA and other government agencies put some money into developing kind of this crowd sourced, multi sourced database of stuff in space where going to the website, it queries the graph database and just kind of shows you locations in 3D space of where some of these opinions about stuff in space reside, and did that through the University of Texas at Austin and just commercialized it under Privateer Space.
Chuck: I’d like to hear more about Privateer Space, too, because, again, you’re a co-founder of that, along with some other incredible names, too: Alex Fielding and Steve Wozniak. How did you become involved with Privateer?
Moriba: Well, both Steve and Alex, they knew about me. They reached out to me just over a year ago, and they’ve been following my work, and they fully embrace this vision of environmental sustainability and interconnectedness and stewardship. And they’re like, we see a place for someone to really scale a lot of the work that I’ve been doing at UT to make it more accessible to as many people as possible, and that sort of stuff. And the idea of being able to have a decision intelligence platform, decision intelligence being kind of the trade craft of manipulating data and information so as to maximize desired outcomes. Because the stuff I’m doing at UT is great on the research perspective, but it’s not like robust. 24/7. You want to depend on it, you click on it at one point in the morning, everything works fine. No, it’s mostly to demonstrate capability, but I feel that we’re at another Renaissance. I call it a Renaissance encore for a variety of reasons. And much like in the original Renaissance, most of the art and science that flourished from the original Renaissance happens not because people were getting government grants to do stuff. It was because of one particular family, the Medici. And so one of the things that I’ve been looking for for years is Where’s my Medici equivalent? Because as an academic, there’s no way that I can get enough kind of funds from National Science Foundation, this sort of stuff to make something that can really be operationalized and really global and Privateer. There you go. So Privateer is the Medici equivalent of this new Renaissance for space.
Chuck: That’s wonderful. One of the things that you’re doing with Privateer, I believe Wayfinder is sort of the first software package coming out, and that’s based on your ASTRIAGraph . Can you tell us more about Wayfinder and how that’s different?
Moriba: Yeah. So ASTRIAGraph uses Neo Four J as knowledge graph software. But ASTRIAGraph right now isn’t something that even though people can go to the website, there’s not a whole lot of interaction that people can just like, just like that app, Waze. Right. I use Waze to drive around Austin. Waze allows users to put in information. Hey, there’s a piece of debris here. That information helps other users on the road avoid hazards and that sort of stuff. So that kind of near real time people get to contribute, get to benefit from it kind of continuously. 24/7. ASTRIAGraph was designed to do that, but doesn’t do that, and that’s what Wayfinder is set to do. So Wayfinder is a rearchitecting of that vision of ASTRIAGraph . But putting it in a framework that scales and can be operationalized so it can be put into that near real time use. The name Wayfinder is because of back to environmentalism and Indigenous culture is this trade craft of Wayfinding. When I speak to folks that do that in French, Polynesia Samoa and whatnot they say, look, when you’re out in the middle of the ocean, you’re in an outrigger canoe and you’re trying to make it from one tiny island to another, you have to have a successful conversation with the environment if you’re going to live through that. And so that is the tradecraft of Wayfinding. And so that’s what we want to do at Privateer is we want to have a successful conversation with the environment so that all of us can thrive.
Chuck: Obviously tracking all the space junk/space debris is so important. What are your thoughts on how do we clean it up?
Moriba: The first thing that we need to do is definitely right now, there’s objects that we know that should be removed, and these are like derelict rocket bodies that are pretty much ticking time bombs. There’s a couple of thousand of them. We’ve seen one Chinese rocket body reenter, and the world was kind of spun up on that. Where is this thing going to land? And it landed in the ocean, so it’s still unfortunate, but at least it didn’t land over a populated area. There’s a couple of thousand rocket bodies up there that are ticking time bombs and dangerous, and they’re owned mostly by Russia, the US, and China in that order of numbers. It’s not, unfortunately, there’s no money to be made out of that. And so the thing is, if you say, okay, well, who’s going to pay for cleaning the rocket bodies? There’s no political will per se to like anybody who runs in politics on a platform of on day one in the White House, I’m going to remove five rocket bodies. So I think that in order for the debris to be cleaned, it needs to be something where people can make money from it or something that you can really trace to. Environmental impact basically be able to quantify the detriment of this stuff up there in ways that are in arguable. And I think that to do that, we need to develop sustainability metrics like a carbon footprint analog in space that I call like a space traffic footprint, loosely understood as the burden that any given object poses on the safety and sustainability of anything else, and even orbital carrying capacity, given that we put satellites in very particular orbital highways to then say, okay, the orbital carrying capacity is saturated when our decisions and actions can no longer prevent some percentage of undesirable outcomes per month or per week or whatever. And I think having those two things, then it’s easy to say, okay, we’ve measured the aggregate space traffic footprint in this orbital highway in its capacity. The capacity is saturated and the capacity is being consumed by these objects. And these objects are owned by these countries. And if any other country wants to use that orbital space, well, it can’t, because it’s occupied. And so that country could probably then go to the ones that own dead pieces of junk that are taking up capacity for no reason and say, we need to figure out a way to clean this, because I should be able to have free, peaceful and unhindered use of outer space for my own country’s needs. And your junk is taking it up. That’s not cool.
Chuck: I agree with that. One thing that you said, this kind of blew me away too, is we have the FAA who can license Rockets for the US, whether you can take off and where and when. But that’s only in the US. And once you get to orbit, there are pretty much no rules. How would you like to see that changed?
Moriba: Yeah. So right now we have international space law codified in these treaties and conventions, but they’re very widely interpreted and implemented. I think the first thing that we need to do is I tell people you can’t enforce what you don’t manage, can’t manage what you don’t know and you can’t know what you don’t measure. So it all boils down to measurements. And I think which is the whole impetus behind ASTRIAGraph. And now Wayfinder is can we assemble the largest compendium of knowledge about stuff in space such that we can have a wide variety of inquiry, draw conclusions from this measurable set to get some knowledge about how are people actually implementing or complying with different treaties, rules and regulations. And based on that evidence, then we can have a conversation of, oh, yeah. So the way that you’re interpreting this actually isn’t meeting the intent. The intent was blank. How can we work together to change that behavior such that we do have space for our children’s, children and so on and so forth? I think that’s the order of operations that we need to go through.
Chuck: What’s next for you and Privateer?
Moriba: So we just came out of stealth mode. As you see, we’ve seen the website and Wayfinder that sort of stuff. At the end of the day, here’s what I want. I want to be able to use space as humanity’s mirror so that we can understand how interconnected things are and the importance of stewardship. So everything underlying what Privateer does, there’s that spirit of interconnectedness the stewardship and trying to basically, when you raise the tide, all ships kind of go up sort of thing. And we want to be useful to people. We want to do things in a way that increases human connection across the globe. We want to do things that motivate and improve peace and prosperity as well. Connection, peace and prosperity. We want to be able to measurably improve these things using our decision intelligence platform and recognizing that we at Privateer, we don’t have the answer to this stuff. It takes a community. We want to provide a mechanism that incentivizes collaboration and partnership. And together we can sort some stuff out and along the way we’ll make some money at it. And that’s okay. Those things can coexist. Doing good things and making money. Those can coexist. So I think within the next six to twelve months you’ll see more evidence of that spirit come out.
Chuck: That will be fantastic. Moriba, I want to thank you so much for this. We just wish you and Privateer Space the best. I just want to thank you so much for taking time to join me. Really appreciate it.
Moriba: Thank you so much, brother.
Chuck: Wow, I really enjoyed my conversation with Moriba and I’m really excited about the future of Privateer Space. Space junk has been a growing problem for years and I’m so happy that companies like Privateer are stepping up to actually do something about it. If you’d like to learn more, please check out their website at Privateer.com. I want to thank Moriba for joining us today. I also want to thank you for joining us as well. Again, we’d appreciate it if you’re watching on YouTube, give us a thumbs up or a like on your favorite podcast application. We also appreciate it if you share this episode with a friend. Thank you so much for joining us today. We’ll see you next time. God bless.
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