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The world’s first wooden satellite will launch into space this year!7 min read

June 22, 2021 6 min read

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The world’s first wooden satellite will launch into space this year!7 min read

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Have you ever wondered what kind materials can survive in space? Something that can survive in extreme temperatures, something light in weight, something that can defy the force of gravity? That sounds about right given you have to launch something light-years away! Hence, the scientists and engineers building satellites use light-weight materials like aluminium and titanium.

Credit: Giphy

To survive in space, a material has to pass certain tests:

  • Temperature shifts – Temperatures can vary between very high and very low out in space, and there’s no remote to control it!
  • Gravitational pull – Going from high gravitational pull while launching to zero gravitational pull out in space can alter the craft.
  • Radiation – This depends on how far the material is going to travel. Closer to Earth means lesser radiation, and this goes up as you go into higher orbits.
  • Pressure – This can be both internal and external.
  • Impacts – With so many satellites and objects being sent up in space, it’s getting crowded. The material being used must withstand all that space junk it can collide into.
  • Vibrations – While there may not be vibrations up in space, down here and while launching, the craft will experience vibration and needs to tolerate that.
The Wisa Woodstat. Credit: Arctic Astronauts/ESA

Why are talking about these interstellar matters, you ask? Well, it’s because scientists are about to launch a totally new material into space – wood. The world’s first wooden satellite is getting ready to launch this year – in November, from New Zealand. Called WISA Woodstat, the tiny satellite, called a nanosatellite, measures 4×4 inches and weighs just about a kilogram! A special type of coated plywood, called WISA, makes up the satellites panels.

Who is behind the
tiny satellite?

Finnish company Arctic Astronautics has designed WISA Woodstat. The company makes satellite replicas that are fully-functional and orbit-ready. The replicas are mostly used for education, training and hobby purposes.

Arctic Astronaut experts with the WISA Woodstat. Credit: Arctic Astronauts

What is the aim of this mission?

The aim of the mission is to test the behaviour and durability of these plywood panels in the extreme conditions of space. This will provide immense data on whether wood is suitable for future missions.

The satellite will be have two cameras, one of which will be attached to a metal selfie stick, allowing the mission team to observe how the satellite’s plywood surface changes in the space environment. 

The building blocks

Credit: Giphy

Samuli Nymanm, chief engineer and co-founder of Arctic Astronauts, said, “The base material for plywood is birch, and we’re using basically just the same as you’d find in a hardware store or to make furniture. The main difference is that ordinary plywood is too humid for space uses, so we place our wood in a thermal vacuum chamber to dry it out. Then we also perform atomic layer deposition, adding a very thin aluminum oxide layer.”

This means that the wood used to make this satellite has been dried in an enclosed space so that it loses any moisture before being sent to space. If water leaks out and is absorbed, it can impact the structure of the object significantly, and hence, there is the need to make sure it is free of any moisture.

The non-wood parts are a metal selfie stick and aluminium rods for launch purposes. In addition to the aluminium oxide coating, engineers will also test various varnishes and lacquers on sections of the wood for research purposes. 



Now here comes the big question…

Can wood survive in space?  

According to Nymanm, the aluminum oxide used to coat the wood will help to prevent it from releasing any gas in the space environment. It will also protect the surface against the exposure to atomic oxygen, which can be found at the fringes of the Earth’s atmosphere and is corrosive in nature. This type of oxygen, created when strong UV radiation from the sun splits normal oxygen molecules, was first discovered after it damaged the thermal blankets of NASA’s early Space Shuttle missions. 

When it comes to the wooden panels, atomic oxygen is likely to darken it in colour, but, according to Arctic Astronauts, the satellite should survive in space.

Owliver’s Obscure Observations

Credit: Giphy

In 2010, to marks its 350th anniversary, the Royal Society, which is fellowship of the world’s most imminent scientists, sent into space a piece of wood from Sir Isaac Newton’s famous apple tree. Yes, the same apple tree that inspired him to develop his theory on gravity! It was taken into space by British astronaut Piers Sellers on the NASA mission STS 132. It returned home to the Royal Society in 2016 after spending 12 whole days in space.

Going 3D in space

There’s another experiment that the satellite will be carrying out. It will test the use of a 3D-printed plastic material. This experiment would go a long way in future use of 3D printing in space missions, said the European Space Agency, which helps Arctic Astronautics test the satellite. 

The junk issue

How the Earth looks surrounded by all the space junk floating around.
Credit: European Space Agency

In another effort to send a wooden craft into space, a Japanese company and Kyoto University have joined forces to develop such a satellite by 2023. Currently, they are researching tree growth and the uses of wood in space by conducting several experiments. This project, scientists say, could help tackle a big issue – space junk.

Space junk is becoming an increasing problem as more satellites are launched into the atmosphere. They are increasingly being used for communication, television, navigation and weather forecasting.

Experts say this is dangerous, as there is an increasing threat of this junk falling here on Earth! With the rate at which space junk travels, it could cause a lot of damage to anything it comes in contact with. Researchers are now trying to find a way to tackle this issue.

Owliver’s Obscure Observations

There are nearly 6,000 satellites circling the Earth, according to the World Economic Forum. About 60% of them are space junk. Research firm Euroconsult estimates that 990 satellites will be launched every year this decade, which means that by 2028, there could be 15,000 satellites in orbit! Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already launched more than 900 Starlink satellites and has plans to deploy thousands more.

How does wood help with this junk? Experts say wooden satellites would burn up in space without releasing any harmful substances into the atmosphere. Nor will it lead to any kind of debris falling onto the Earth.

Credit: Giphy

“We are very concerned with the fact that all the satellites which re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere burn and create tiny alumina particles which will float in the upper atmosphere for many years,” Takao Doi, a professor at Kyoto University and Japanese astronaut, told the BBC.

Doi says that the tiny particles of aluminium that fall back onto the Earth can affect the environment down here too eventually.

Sources: BBC, National Geographic, Firstpost, Space.com

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