You wood not believe what a Japanese logging company and university want to use to build a small satellite

Has the sustainability trend infiltrated the space industry?


Kyoto University and Japanese logging company Sumitomo Forestry are designing a wooden satellite, with hopes of achieving the goal by 2023.

The 10cm cubesat, called LignoSat, will be made of wood and solar panels. Use of the renewable material would make it cheaper than the standard aluminium and more environmentally friendly when it burns up upon re-entry into the atmosphere.

Another added benefit is that electromagnetic waves can make their way through wood, unlike aluminium, opening up possibilities for satellites to store antennas. However, the initial proof-of-concept cubesat will contain an electronic substrate, which will also burn up and add to the pollution in the upper atmosphere in a less environmentally friendly way.

One argument is that wooden satellites can be smaller than aluminium ones because of the lack of electromagnetic shielding, and thus not only more environmentally friendly for reentry, but also less likely to contribute to the very real problem of space debris.

The US Department of Defense already tracks more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris travelling at extremely high speeds, think 15,700mph in low Earth orbit.

If the project is successful, it could open up opportunities for wood to be used in other structures in space, a result that surely must please the logging company's investors.

"Through operation, we will verify the use of wood in outer space," said Sumitomo Forestry's canned statement when translated from Japanese [PDF].

But before operating the satellite, the team must work out and test an engineering design, and even prior to that, the collaborative research partners will test the durability of wood as a space material. They plan to test various hardness and species of wood in harness placed outside the International Space Station (ISS) for nine months.

For the ISS part of the mission, it helps that the team is being led by someone who has been there and done that before – Kyoto University professor, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut and firm believer in extraterrestrial life, Takao Doi.

Doi is a veteran of two NASA shuttle missions and visited the ISS in March of 2008, during which time he got to know the exterior of the ISS through a robot-arm session.

LignoSat could be the first wooden satellite to make it into space, but it must act quickly. A Scandinavian cubesat made of plywood called WISA Woodsat is scheduled to go up during the first half of 2022. Originally the satellite was scheduled to launch by the end of 2021, but a change requirement in radio equipment created delays. ®

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