Tuesday, June 6

This Japanese university will launch the first wooden satellite: it wants to take a big leap in space sustainability

It’s no secret that the space industry is growing by leaps and bounds. As ever larger and more powerful spacecraft are developed to go back to the Moon and even visit Mars, rocket and satellite launches continue to increase. The expansion of human presence beyond Earth seems to be an exciting reality, but it comes with environmental risks.

In these times, different initiatives have been launched, such as the United Nations SDGs, which seek to protect the planet from the devastating effects of climate change, and which call for the commitment of citizens, industries and governments. In this sense, Space Agencies such as NASA, ESA and JAXA have recognized the importance of redesigning their practices that aim to achieve sustainability.

A grain of sand in terms of sustainability

Despite the fact that there is still a long way to go, there are several projects that aim at the sustainability of the space sector. In Japan, Kyoto University believes that launching artificial wooden satellites may be a valid solution for this purpose. But his idea has not stayed on paper, rather he has been working for years to find out if this material from trees can be useful in outer space.

The house of studies did several laboratory tests that showed that certain woods can withstand temperatures between -150 and 150 degrees Celsius. They also found reasonable values ​​of deterioration under vacuum conditions. With this base, its researchers took a very important step in 2020: they sent different types of wood to the International Space Station (ISS) to evaluate them in a real environment.

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Satellite Madera Kyoto 2

Module with wood sent to the ISS

The astronaut Koichi Wakata was in charge of supervising the resistance tests and structural analysis of a module with wood specially designed to be exposed in outer space. Surprisingly, the material did not present degradation or deformations, with no detectable signs of detachment or damage to the surface layer. Thus, the previously studied properties were confirmed.

The University of Tokyo explains that three types of wood were tested, and that after the good results of the experiment, it is one step closer to taking its proposal to the next level. In 2024, in collaboration with NASA, the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) will launch into space a satellite possibly made of magnolia wood or “hoonoki” in Japanese, for its material stability and great resistance.

From the laboratory they highlight the virtues of this new alternative. They point out that wood, being a natural, economical and carbon based it is “considerably more sustainable in production” than other advanced materials. In addition, it presents benefits when it comes to giving rise to its final destination, since a complete elimination is expected on its re-entry to Earth, without “harmful by-products”.

As NASA explains, satellites are usually built with elements of titanium, aluminum, nickel and gold (not in all cases). Portions of these structures may survive re-entry and reach the Earth’s surface. The progress shown by the Japanese researchers so far is certainly promising, but some details remain to be learned. With the passage of time we will know them.

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Images: Kyoto University

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