Carpenters could be as important as engineers to the future of space travel as scientists prepare to launch the world’s first wooden satellite.
Japanese scientists have swapped aluminum for wood in a new satellite design scheduled to launch this summer.
The satellite, called Lignosat, will be made of magnolia wood and will be about the size of a cup.
And while it may not seem futuristic, using wood could help the space industry eliminate harmful pollution.
If successful, the microsatellite could allow researchers to expand into greener building materials.
Japanese scientists plan to leave traditional materials behind and use wood in a new satellite to be launched this summer.
Lignosat will essentially be a small wooden box with solar panels on the outside and electronic equipment on the inside.
It will launch on an Orbital Sciences Cygnus supply ship to the ISS or on a similar mission aboard a SpaceX Dragon later this year.
Once in orbit, Lignosat will operate for about six months before it is allowed to burn up in the atmosphere.
The researchers plan to include a series of onboard experiments designed to see how well the wood stands up to the harsh conditions of space.
In low Earth orbit, satellites experience temperatures ranging from -85°F (–65°C) to +257°F (125°C), depending on their altitude and sun exposure.
The concern is that the satellite’s wooden panels could warp or crack as the temperature changes.
However, early research showed that wood kept in space-like conditions in the laboratory showed no measurable mass loss, signs of decay or damage.
Encouraged by these results, the researchers sent samples of different types of wood to the International Space Station, where they remained in space for almost a year.
Once again, the wood showed very few signs of decay even after being exposed to extreme temperatures for twice the satellite’s intended operating period.
Wood samples sent to the ISS (pictured) were exposed to space for an entire year but showed no significant signs of damage or decay.
Koji Murata, head of the project, attributed this to the fact that there is no oxygen or living things in space that can decompose wood.
“The wood’s ability to withstand these conditions surprised us,” Mr. Murata he told the Observer.
After reviewing the ISS test results, scientists decided to make the final satellite from magnolia wood.
Compared to other woods tested, such as Japanese cherry, magnolia proved to be the ideal wood for creating a satellite.
In a statement, Kyoto University wrote that Magnolia showed “high workability, dimensional stability and overall strength.”
In addition to having beautiful flowers, scientists discovered that magnolia (pictured) is the perfect wood for making satellites, as it is strong and easy to work with.
Murata adds: ‘One of the satellite’s missions is to measure the deformation of the wooden structure in space.
“Wood is durable and stable in one direction, but can be prone to dimensional changes and cracking in the other direction.”
But, in addition to being stronger than you might expect, wood has some surprising advantages over metals.
Wood does not block electromagnetic radiation, including radio waves used to communicate with satellites in orbit.
This allows wooden satellites to store all their antenna and radio equipment inside, simplifying their design and making them more robust.
However, the advantage that scientists are most interested in is the ecological properties of wood.
As of September last year, there are believed to be 10,590 satellites in orbit, of which around 8,800 were still operational.
This growing mass of space clutter is expected to get worse in the coming years, as estimates suggest another 2,500 satellites will be launched each year between now and 2031.
There are currently thousands of satellites and debris in orbit that risk adding polluting aluminum particles to the atmosphere. This image shows the levels of space debris in low Earth orbit.
All of this adds up to approximately 11,000 tons of space junk rushing overhead.
And while this is a problem in itself, another problem arises when these satellites leave orbit.
Takao Doi, a Japanese astronaut and Kyoto University engineer working on the project, says: “All satellites that re-enter Earth’s atmosphere burn up and create tiny alumina particles, which will float in the upper atmosphere. for many years.
“Over time, it will affect the Earth’s environment,” Mr. Doi told BBC.
Research from the University of British Columbia found that when satellites burn up, the aluminum left behind severely damages the ozone layer.
The ozone layer is a layer of gas that envelops the planet, blocking harmful radiation from the sun and limiting the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground.
To avoid further damaging this protective barrier, engineers hope that wooden satellites will provide a sustainable alternative.
Instead of producing harmful particles, wooden satellites like Lignosat disappear in a cloud of smoke, leaving nothing but biodegradable ash.