Researchers from Japan and the United States are developing plans to launch the world’s first wooden artificial satellite in the summer of 2024. The project aims to provide an environmentally friendly alternative to the aluminum satellites currently orbiting the Earth. The increasing number of satellites and the large quantity of debris already in space have raised concerns about potential problems for both our planet and human-made structures.
The LignoStella Space Wood Project was initiated by Japanese researchers in 2020 to assess the durability of three different types of wood in space: Erman’s birch, Japanese cherry, and magnolia bovate. The wood samples were exposed to harsh space conditions on the International Space Station for over 290 days before being returned to Earth. Analysis revealed that the wood samples exhibited no measurable changes in mass, decomposition, or damage.
The researchers concluded that magnolia wood, also known as “Hoonoki” in Japanese, demonstrated the best qualities for satellite materials. Wood offers advantages over traditional metals as it completely burns up during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and does not release harmful substances or debris. A study by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration found that aerosol particles in the stratosphere contained aluminum and exotic metals from rockets and satellites, which could potentially damage the Earth’s ozone layer.
The number of satellites in Earth’s orbit is currently estimated at around 10,590, with approximately 8,800 still functioning. The total mass of space objects in orbit exceeds 11,000 tons, and this number is set to increase with an average of 2,500 satellite launches per year anticipated until 2031. Defunct satellites pose risks to functional satellites and spacecraft due to high impact speeds in low Earth orbit.
Wood as a satellite material also offers advantages in terms of design. Electromagnetic waves can penetrate through wood, allowing components like antennae to be placed inside the satellite body instead of protruding, simplifying the overall design.
While the use of natural resources for space hardware aligns with sustainable development goals, there are still uncertainties surrounding the use of wood in satellites. The joint LignoSat mission by NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will be launched in 2024, and the satellite’s performance will be closely monitored for at least six months.