For years, the idea of the future has been dominated by images of aluminum rockets, steel skyscrapers, and high-speed shuttles. However, Koji Murata, a researcher at Kyoto University in Japan, envisions a different future—one that involves using biological materials in space.
Curious about the possibility of building wooden structures on the moon or Mars, Murata embarked on creating a wooden satellite to test the theory. Recent research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) discovered that a significant portion of atmospheric aerosol in the stratosphere contains metallic particles from satellites. This raises concerns about potential damage to Earth’s ozone layer.
According to Murata, wooden satellites would be a better alternative for the planet, while still performing the same functions as their metal counterparts. When wooden satellites re-enter the atmosphere at the end of their life, the wood would burn up and become gas, unlike metals that become fine particles.
This idea is not just a dream. Murata and his team have been working on the project for four years and have even sent wood samples to space in 2021 to evaluate the material’s resilience to space conditions. Now, they are collaborating with Japan’s space agency (JAXA) and NASA to launch the prototype satellite, called LingoSat, into orbit in early 2023.
Wood is an obvious choice for space structures, according to Murata. On Earth, wood is prone to burning, rotting, and deformation, but those issues don’t exist in space due to the absence of oxygen and living organisms. Additionally, wood has the same strength-to-weight ratio as aluminum, making it a compelling choice for space construction. Tests conducted at the International Space Station confirmed that wood is remarkably resilient in outer space.
Murata’s team tested three wood types for the satellite: Erman’s birch, Japanese cherry, and magnolia obovata. Ultimately, magnolia wood was chosen for its small and uniform cell size, making it easier to work with and less prone to splitting or breaking.
The number of satellites launched into space has dramatically increased in recent years, raising concerns about the environmental impact. In addition to Murata’s research, other organizations like Finnish startup Arctic Astronautics and aerospace engineer Yarjan Abdul Samad from Khalifa University are also exploring the use of wood and other sustainable materials in space.
Wooden satellites and space-grown wood could contribute to a more environmentally-friendly and sustainable future for space exploration and construction.