Wooden satellites could help curb space junk currently orbiting around Earth. (Image Credit: Sumitomo Forestry)
I love this effort. The Earth’s orbit is littered with thousands of satellites. This becomes an issue when they are no longer operable and turn into space debris. Some have collided together creating thousands of more obstacles. The ISS has to move around constantly to avoid the junk. It is literally a garbage dump in orbit. To help curb space junk, Japan’s Sumitomo Forestry has partnered up with Kyoto University to develop the world’s first wooden satellite by 2023.
Metal satellites are comprised of aluminum, Kevlar, and aluminum alloys, which can withstand extreme temperatures and radiation. The bad news about this is that these characteristics allow satellites to stay in orbit once they become inoperable. According to the World Economic Forum, around 6,000 satellites are orbiting the Earth, with 60% currently defunct. 990 satellites are predicted to be launched every year for the next decade. The WEF has also stated that there over 500,000 million pieces of space debris larger than a marble orbiting the Earth, along with 20,000 pieces of junk larger than a softball. These pieces of debris move at speeds of 17,500 miles per hour, which is needed for it to stay in orbit. NASA also said that additional space debris increases the risk of collision with spacecraft, including the International Space Station, shuttles, and various vessels carrying humans. Even more alarming is that the debris doesn’t need to be large. Paint flecks have already damaged space shuttle windows in the past.
Aluminum used in satellites poses a problem when re-entry occurs. Instead of completely burning up, they break apart into hundreds or thousands of tiny alumina particles that float in the atmosphere for many years, which could be harmful to the environment. Now, the researchers involved in this project are exploring ways to replace the material with wood.
Using wooden satellites can provide two major advantages. For starters, they completely burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere upon re-entry without leaving behind harmful substances. Additionally, electromagnetic waves flow through it, allowing antennas to be placed in the satellite’s internal structure, making it easier to design and deploy.
Sumitomo Forestry and Kyoto University have already started to develop a “proof of concept” and research tree growth and how to use wood materials in space. The next plan is to create an engineering and flight model for the satellite. The wood developed from this project could be used in extreme environments on Earth if there isn’t a way to use wooden satellites in space.
Space junk is only going to get worse. SpaceX and Amazon’s Project Kuiper are racing to launch thousands of satellites into orbit, offering low-cost internet. Astronomers have also said that these satellites could block out their ability to watch the night sky. How wooden satellites could worsen the issue is still a mystery, but it’s a promising alternative to metal satellites.
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