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Research  World's first wooden satellite could herald era of greener space exploration

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INTRO: Researchers unveiled the world’s first wooden satellite last month, billing it as clearing a path for more uses of wood in outer space. The material will be more sustainable and less polluting than the metals used in conventional satellites, they say.

Researchers at Kyoto University in Japan and the Tokyo-based logging company Sumitomo Forestry showed off the satellite, called LignoSat, in late May. The roughly 10-centimetre-long cube is made of magnolia-wood panels and has an aluminium frame, solar panels, circuit boards and sensors. The panels incorporate Japanese wood-joinery methods that do not rely on glue or metal fittings.

Wood might seem counterintuitive for use in space because it is combustible — but that feature can be desirable. To curb the growing problem of space junk threatening spacecraft and space stations, rocket stages and satellites are deliberately plunged into the Earth’s atmosphere to burn up. But during combustion, they release particles of aluminium and other metals. Many more spacecraft launches are planned, and scientists have warned that the environmental effects of this pollution are unknown.

When LignoSat plunges back to Earth, after six months to a year of service, the magnolia will incinerate completely and release only water vapour and carbon dioxide, says Takao Doi, an astronaut and engineer at Kyoto University, who is part of the research team. He points to other benefits of wood: it’s resilient in the harsh environment of space and does not block radio waves, making it suitable for enclosing an antenna.

And there is a precedent for spacecraft with wooden parts. Launched in 1962, NASA’s Ranger 3 lunar probe had a balsa-wood casing intended to protect its capsule as it landed on the lunar surface (the probe malfunctioned, missed the Moon and began orbiting the Sun)... (MORE - details)

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