A team of researchers at Kyoto University has been crafting a satellite constructed primarily from wood for NASA. Now the team plans to launch into space next summer in a collaborative mission between Japan’s JAXA space agency and NASA.
While the choice of wood may initially appear unconventional for space technology, scientists argue that wood has unique advantages in the space environment. Koji Murata, a researcher from Kyoto University involved in the project, explained, “When you use wood on Earth, you have the problems of burning, rotting, and deformation, but in space, you don’t have those problems: there is no oxygen in space, so it doesn’t burn, and no living creatures live in them, so they don’t rot.”
Wood also exhibits impressive strength-to-weight ratios, similar to aluminium. Furthermore, when the wooden satellite reaches the end of its operational life, it can safely burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, reducing the issue of space debris.
The satellite, aptly named LignoSat, is crafted from magnolia wood and is part of JAXA’s J-Cube Program, designed to foster emerging space technologies through microsatellite initiatives. The researchers intend to observe LignoSat’s behaviour over a minimum of six months, particularly assessing how it copes with drastic temperature fluctuations in space.
Murata shared, “There is not much reduction in strength from minus 150 to 150 degrees Celsius (-238 to 302 degrees Fahrenheit), we confirmed that in our experiments. But a satellite goes around the Earth and has these huge temperature differences in 90 minutes. We don’t know to what extent the satellite can withstand this intense, repeated cycle of temperature difference, so this has to be investigated.”
Beyond its environmental benefits, the researchers speculate that wood may offer compelling advantages for spacecraft interiors, potentially shielding astronauts from harmful radiation.
Apart from the practical considerations, the notion of a space capsule with a wooden interior adds a touch of comfort and warmth to the otherwise sterile environment, offering a novel perspective on the future of space exploration.