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Japan might make satellites out of wood – here’s why it’s a great idea

Published Dec 29th, 2020 11:10PM EST
wooden satellites
Image: Reid Wiseman/NASA

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  • A joint venture between Japan’s Sumitomo Forestry and Kyoto University could result in the first use of wood as a satellite building material.
  • Using wood for satellite construction could reduce the space junk problem by a degree, but only if the satellites actually fall to Earth. 
  • When a wood-based satellite falls to Earth, it would completely burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, posing no risk to those on the ground.

When you think of satellites you think of metal. Lightweight alloys are the go-to for satellite builders because it’s easy to launch satellites if they’re light and the metals they use are strong and durable. Unfortunately, that’s also a problem. You see, the space around Earth is becoming absolutely packed with debris, and a lot of that debris is old, defunct satellites, or parts of satellites that have already crashed into each other.

How could we possibly solve such a problem? Well, we could start by making satellites that don’t turn into trash as readily as metal seems to. Building a satellite out of wood, for example, would allow it to break down more easily and completely burn up in Earth’s atmosphere when its orbit degrades. That’s why Japan’s Sumitomo Forestry is teaming up with Kyoto University to experiment with wood as a satellite building material.

As BBC reports, the researchers have a number of aims in their trials of using wood for large portions of their satellites. The primary benefit would be that the satellites would easily burn up after they had served their purpose and fallen back toward Earth, but wood may offer additional benefits that could make satellites more efficient.

For example, because electromagnetic waves are not hindered by wood as they are by metal, the actual shape and layout of the satellite could be different. Vital components that have to be exposed to space on current satellites for communication purposes could instead be housed safely within a wooden enclosure. This could make it easier to build the satellites and ready them for use once they are launched into space.

However, it’s important to remember that the only reason we currently have a space junk problem is that satellites fail to fall out of orbit after they’re dead. A wooden satellite that exhausts its usefulness would still pose a problem in terms of space junk if it continues to orbit Earth. In fact, when metal satellites fall out of orbit they almost always completely burn up as well, so while making them out of wood would make that process a bit more predictable, it wouldn’t be an instant fix, and obviously wouldn’t help us reduce the space junk already orbiting our planet.

Regardless of any of that, the partnership between the company and the university hopes to have a wooden satellite developed by 2023, so we’ll be interested to see how things progress.

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