Japan’s Kyoto University, working with Nasa and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa), plan to launch wood (rather than metal-based) satellites into orbit from next year. 


As part of the LignoSat Space Wood Project, which began in April 2020, as a collaboration between Kyoto University and Sumitomo Forestry, wood specimens have been tested with exposure in space at the International Space Station (the ISS) with a view to making the wood-based LignoSat satellite. Magnolia wood (“Hoonoki” in Japanese) will form the basis of the satellite because of its high workability, dimensional stability, and strength. 

Why A Wooden Satellite? 

The reasons for using wood for satellites are: 

  • Wood can withstand the huge temperature fluctuations and cope surprisingly well with cosmic rays and dangerous solar particles (and other harsh environmental effects) without decomposition or deformations. This means that wood, an abundant sustainable and natural material (no expensive development costs), appears to be a suitable material for use in low earth orbit. 
  • When wood-based satellites fall back to Earth, they will burn up completely in the upper atmosphere with no harmful bi-products, thereby reducing the risk of atmospheric pollution and pollution of the earth below. Wood may be better, for example, than the aluminium that is currently used (which releases alumina particles on burn-up), polluting the atmosphere and reflecting sunlight in a way that can contribute to abnormal weather. 
  • It’s easier for radio waves to penetrate dried timber, thereby allowing the LignoSat team to put communication antennas and sensor technology directly into the body of the satellite. 
  • A wooden satellite that burns up completely will not contribute to the already significant space junk problem. For example, European Space Agency figures show that there are nearly 34,000 large pieces of debris, nearly 2,800 defunct satellites, and millions of pieces of space junk/trash currently circling Earth’s orbit, all of which pose a safety risk to astronauts and the viability of active satellites. 

Spin-Off Benefits 

One anticipated spin-off of the satellite project is that Japanese logging firm Sumitomo, one of the partners in the project, may use insights gained from the satellite to help it develop materials for what could be the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper in Tokyo by 2041. 

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

With most of us concerned about what’s happening on earth and to its atmosphere, satellites may not be our first thought when it comes to making changes to protect the atmosphere and the environment. There is also the non-trivial of the pollution and carbon released by using fossil fuels to blast satellites into orbit in the first place.

That said, the project does show that there’s no good reason why wood wouldn’t be a good material for use within a satellite, and the fact that its natural and sustainable, safer and less polluting on burnup, and can make for a better design (in terms of radio wave permeability) appear to make it a better alternative to aluminium (which has to be mined). It seems that the testing of wood as part of the project could have other valuable environmental beneficial spin-offs such as creating high-functioning wood materials for new applications and materials for a wooden (rather than concrete) skyscraper.

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