The ‘space’ around our planet is riddled with more than 23,000 known man-made objects: from defunct satellites to nuts and bolts, they’re all zipping around our planet, posing a threat to working satellites and space flight missions. Things aren’t getting any better anytime soon, either. With more satellites being put into orbit, we can expect yet more space junk.
Japan has an idea about how that could be addressed, and it’s probably not what you think.
Putting wood into space doesn’t exactly sound like a good idea, but that’s exactly what Japanese logging company Sumitomo Forestry and Kyoto University are planning to do. They’re looking at ways to include wood in satellites, particularly as a box for other components.
Wood has the advantage of potentially not requiring any nuts and bolts, and if it could be treated to withstand the extreme conditions of outer space, it could be a good option.
It’s not just the environmental concept — wood also has some distinct advantages compared to other materials. For instance, it doesn’t block electromagnetic waves or the Earth’s magnetic field, meaning that it doesn’t affect sensors or antennas placed inside a wooden box in any way. This would alleviate some of the design problems with modern satellites. Wood would also burn completely when re-entering the atmosphere, without releasing toxins or debris.
“We are very concerned with the fact that all the satellites which re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere burn and create tiny alumina particles which will float in the upper atmosphere for many years,” Takao Doi, a professor at Kyoto University and Japanese astronaut, told the BBC. “Eventually it will affect the environment of the Earth.”
It’s estimated that 990 satellites will be launched every year this decade, which means that the number of satellites could quickly grow to 15,000.
For now, the project is only meant to serve as basic research and offer a proof of concept. The first wooden satellite is set to be launched in 2023, and the project will last through March 2024. As part of the project, Sumitomo Forestry also aims to develop wooden constructions resistant to extreme temperatures and conditions — which could prove useful not just for satellites, but also for other environments.