Innovation That Matters

The wooden satellite shell is designed to burn up on re-entry, to minimise pollution and space junk | Photo source Sumitomo Forestry

Wooden satellite leaves less space mess

Science

Engineers have developed a wooden satellite that burns up on re-entry – eliminating the possibility of creating more space debris

Spotted: Space, at least the space in Earth’s orbit, is a crowded place. According to NASA, there are at least 34,000 large pieces of debris and around 2550 defunct satellites – as well as millions of small pieces of space trash – currently circling the planet. The more junk there is up there, the greater the risk to astronauts and satellites. Now, engineers at Kyoto University are hoping to keep the situation from getting worse by developing a wooden satellite that will completely burn up at the end of its life.

Former astronaut and Kyoto professor Takao Doi is leading a team building the LignoSat satellite, which they hope to launch in 2023. The satellite would have a wooden shell, which would burn up on re-entry rather than hang around contributing to the problem of space junk. The researchers are working together with Japanese logging and wood processing company Sumitomo Forestry.

Sumitomo is currently working on developing wooden materials that are highly resistant to temperature changes and sunlight. They will then work with Doi’s team to test the woods them in extreme environments on Earth that are similar to those found in orbit, such as extreme temperatures, and exposure to unfiltered sunlight and radiation. The next stage will be developing the engineering model of the satellite, followed by the manufacture of the flight model. 

According to Professor Dai, one of the major problems with metal space debris is that, as they burn up on re-entry, they can release small particles of aluminium oxide into the atmosphere. He told the BBC that, “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. Eventually, it will affect the environment of the Earth.” 

Wood is increasingly being seen as a sustainable alternative for a host of materials, including concrete and steel. This is because timber has a much lower carbon footprint than concrete and steel, and can also actually capture CO2 from the atmosphere as it grows. At Springwise, we have seen wood used as a sustainable building material in innovative projects such as a wooden cargo ship and a wooden, carbon-negative building.

Written By: Lisa Magloff

Website: kyoto-u.ac.jp/en

Contact: kyoto-u.ac.jp/en/contact

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