Pono in Space! Reflections on the road to orbit
December 6, 2023
Less than two years ago, a small team of dreamers at Privateer embarked on a journey to redefine satellite capabilities and the future of our space environment.
Our mission: to create a satellite compute-and-communications platform that would revolutionize decision intelligence and break barriers to data access, launching a new era of Earth observation in space and space data applications back home.
This is the story of Pono, our pioneering prototype that was recently catapulted into the cosmos by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, hitching a ride as a hosted payload onboard D-Orbit’s ION space tug.
But that’s not what we originally planned to build.
It all began with a vision of crafting the ultimate Swiss Army knife of a satellite – a versatile vehicle equipped with arrays of sensors that could up-level Earth observation while lowering costs. However, the sometimes-unforgiving way of aerospace engineering stopped us in our tracks. We soon discovered that the compute-and-communications systems onboard would be a major roadblock, both in terms of functionality and cost.
This revelation drove us to pivot … a sometimes humbling but crucial aspect of product development. In what was initially a major obstacle, we found the very spark that led us to a more efficient and pragmatic path and opened up a world of potential.
Recognizing the problem that needed to be solved, we set out to develop both compact hardware with off-the-shelf parts and the streamlined, user-centric software that would unlock the full potential of that hardware. This harmonious fusion was much like the approach to product development championed at Apple, our co-founder Steve Wozniak’s somewhat well-known first creation.
Picture this: a group of passionate engineers who thrive on tinkering in the garage day after day, working to broaden humanity’s capabilities in space. In the spirit of hands-on engineering and a cultural embrace of mold-breaking ideas, one of our team members even retrofitted a toaster oven to bake printed circuit boards.
This sort of ingenuity led us to build the first prototype of Pono, a system capable of serving as a hosted payload on a variety of satellites, aimed at delivering 10 times the compute at 1/10th the cost.
By integrating machine learning workloads, enhancing navigation with autopilot capabilities, and streamlining data processing workflows, Pono – named with a Hawaiian term often used to mean "to do what is right" – will empower satellite operators with not just automated safety and sustainability of space operations, but also new avenues for efficiency and revenue.
Now, as Pono begins validation of its radiation shielding and software capabilities in orbit, we envision a future where operators can utilize this small-but-powerful hosted payload to open up tasking of their underutilized sensors to external parties – fostering collaboration and innovation, reducing the need to launch more single-use satellites, and ultimately preserving our orbital highways while expanding their potential for problem-solvers everywhere.
My personal journey is marked by a love for risk-taking and a fondness for venturing into the unknown. I cherish the process of trying things that others deem likely to fail, learning from mistakes, adapting swiftly, and staying resilient. I’m proud to say that the team here at Privateer did exactly that in creating this mighty little package, and today we’re celebrating having hardware in space.
The first Pono of many!
Author Justin Bellucci is Privateer's senior director of engineering.