When news came out that Desktop Metal had developed titanium for its Studio 2 desktop 3D printer, one piece of information that was little explored by other media sites was one of the material’s earliest customers. Desktop Metal’s announcement was, in fact, a coming-out-of-stealth for a new startup called Privateer Space, established in part by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. 3DPrint.com learned that the firm was planning to use the material to 3D print a satellite chassis launching in 2022. To learn more, we spoke to Privateer Space co-founder and CEO Alex Fielding.
Fielding has spent the last seven years as the CEO of a company called Ripcord, which builds vision-guided robots to digitize paper records, a technology that segues into his next mission with Privateer Space: to sweep up space junk.
“Ripcord is on a path to go public, which gave me a perfect opportunity to go and explore some other things. The particular problem set that we’re focused on crosses the chasm between space situational awareness in real time and cleaning up space debris,” Fielding said.
At the moment, the CEO pointed out that about 21,000 objects are being tracked in space, about 3,500 of which are trash. About half of the 6,000 old satellites orbiting Earth are dead, making up the lion’s share of the space debris problem. The other 500 pieces of junk are bits that are larger than 10 centimeters. And that doesn’t include the items smaller than 10 centimeters that are near impossible to see with ground-based radar, the primary method for tracking space objects. Of those, there are probably half a million or more tiny pieces—think paint chips, nuts, bolts, and screws.
3,500 pieces of junk doesn’t seem like that big of a number, compared to the amount of waste generated on Earth, particularly given the huge expanses of space in which this debris is floating. However, this trash is zooming at 18,000 miles per hour, flying past active satellites and even ripping the arm off the International Space Station. This problem is only going to get worse, with certain orbits becoming more congested as companies like Starlink and OneWeb aim to launch over 90,000 satellites in the next five years. The former already has 1,600 satellites in orbit alone, with a newly approved launch plan to increase that to 42,000 in the next couple of years.
Though the problem has compounded over the years, Fielding’s interest in space debris began 20 years ago, when he founded GPS-tagging firm Wheels of Zeus with Wozniak.
“Even 20 years ago, when we had about 2,000 things in space, half of them were trash. So, we keep on going to the picnic and throwing our trash out of a spacecraft and never picking it up. And it’s now becoming quite dangerous. We’ve seen a lot of near misses in the last couple of months. We’ve also had a couple of collisions in the last couple of months,” Fielding said.
But cleaning it up isn’t as easy as it might sound. Not only is there the need to actually rendezvous with the junk and grab it, but there’s also the need to be able to see the object with sufficient resolution to link up with it in the first place. So, step-by-step, Privateer Space is building the infrastructure necessary to address the space debris problem, beginning with space situational awareness.
The first product Privateer Space is currently launching is a satellite with a 360° sensor pack that includes advanced sensors and optics that provide a totally different approach to monitoring space in real-time. Additive manufacturing (AM) is key to the startup’s vision because of the power it holds in freeing up space and weight in satellite design.
“A lot of satellite functionality actually gets lost by ineffective design of the chassis, whether they’re small cubesats or large custom-built, multi-hundred kilo satellites. If your chassis is too heavy, you’re giving up that weight for something that you could have used it for, like propulsion, batteries, band better sensors. And no one wants to do that, but there are certain sciences, especially in the small satellite world, where your dimensions are fixed.”
With 3D printing, it’s possible to optimize designs to feature material only where necessary. This is further improved by material choice, and the reason titanium is aerospace’s favorite metal is its high strength-to-weight ratio. Together with the affordable and easy-to-use nature of the Studio system from Desktop Metal, Privateer Space had all that was necessary to 3D print titanium chassis.
The space startup has 3D printed a satellite body that is 30 cm by 10 cm by 10 cm (a three-unit cubesat) made from Ti64 titanium. With this material, the system weighs 40 percent less than a stainless-steel counterpart while displaying more rigidity in the same total volume. This means more weight for sensors, systems, batteries, and propulsion. Titanium is also necessary for the corrosive atmosphere of space. The firm’s only other option would have been Inconel, but the nickel alloy is much heavier than titanium. Moreover, the rigidity of this 3D printed design is essential for performing accurate measurements in space.
“I don’t think there’s a way we could do it without taking this approach, primarily because the sensors are so delicate. The measurements are so precise that you can account for certain types of spin on the object, but you can’t as easily account for stresses on the chassis. So, when this thing is spinning in space, it’s almost like a 360° camera. You have optics and sensors on all six planes. Your challenge is reducing the vibration and any type of wobble in the design to get it so stable that you can get really highly accurate readings. There’d be no way to do that if we’d printed this out of plastic or even out of aluminum for that matter. We think titanium is a game changer.”
The chassis is 3D printed as a single piece, featuring sophisticated lattice structures to reduce weight. Mount points are built into the printed design, making it possible to more quickly and easily attach non-printed components.
As Privateer continues benchmark testing on the chassis, it will also be testing the use of Desktop Metal’s Fiber system for carbon fiber reinforced parts. Fielding hopes that by 3D printing such small components as connectors and mounts, weight can be reduced even further. In addition, this will provide insight into just how much material is necessary to support batteries or compressed gas.
“When we added just the weight of the weld points, the connectors, the holes for those connectors and the size of the connectors, it was the difference between printing in stainless and printing in titanium. 30 to 40% of the weight in a very small object goes to the connectors and those types of parts. I think it’s going to be interesting to see if the additive manufacturing world can put up a strong enough front with aerospace or specifically space to be able to convince some of the body is trying to create open standards for space that we should include 3D printing in those standards.”
To begin cleaning up space junk, the company will focus on the actual monitoring of space from space, rather than from Earth, which will give the company a significant leg up in what can be seen at what resolution. Governments and businesses will likely subscribe for access to the data from Privateer satellites tracking space.
“When you’re measuring objects that are very close to earth and are moving very, very fast overhead, they might be overhead every couple of hours. And, if you’re off by 300 or 400 kilometers and it’s moving that fast over your head, you’re not going to know that it hit your antenna until it has already left your field of view and it’s too late,” Fielding said. “We will be the first company that is actually seeing space from space.”
This will make it possible to fund the next steps of the journey: systems for rendezvousing with space debris, grabbing it, and either moving it into an unused junk lane of space or de-orbiting it back toward Earth. Fielding envisions other possibilities, such as repairing or refueling some unused satellites to give them second lives. All of this is just the beginning of a true infrastructure in space that includes such bodies as space garbage and tow trucks.
“You know, there are no road rules in space. So, you’ve got this kind of maritime world above our heads,” Fielding said. “Now the launch costs are so much lower that putting up a heck of a lot of objects has really made it very affordable. Now that it’s affordable, people will start putting things in space just to see if they can. So, now we need a tow truck company. We need an insurance company. We need a gas station company to refuel. We need convenience stores in a weird way in space. There’s a whole industry of space services that are evolving that look a little bit like how the maritime industry evolved when we started really becoming a seafaring people.”
When it comes to intercepting space junk, it isn’t just about preventing damage to costly and useful equipment but even preventing World War Three. For instance, if an object from one nation’s spacecraft is hurdling towards another nation’s, diplomacy could be at stake, with states arguing whether or not such a move was intentional. So rather than start an international incident, a company like Privateer could be called in to stop a collision.
Of course, before this vision can be achieved, Privateer needs to accomplish its first step. It will be launching its first satellite in February of 2022 with a yet-unannounced launch partner. Then, from its base in Maui, Hawaii, where there’s so little pollution that the stars don’t even twinkle, the startup will watch space from space to prevent the next big orbiting accident.
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