LignoSat: Japanese Engineers to Launch Wooden Satellite into Space

In May 2023, scientists from Kyoto University and the Japanese forestry company Sumitomo Forestry unveiled the world’s first wooden satellite, marking a new frontier in space technology. Named LignoSat, the new satellite is cuboid-shaped with sides approximately 10 centimeters long, equipped with solar panels and electronic boards integrated into its sides. A distinctive feature of LignoSat is its use of traditional Japanese wood joinery techniques, allowing its sides to be interconnected without glue.

The project began in 2020, and after completing all tests, the satellite was handed over to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) for further durability tests. LignoSat is scheduled to be transported to the International Space Station in September 2024 and launched into orbit in November.

The choice of wood as the satellite material is driven by its ecological benefits: wood burns easily, making it more preferable than metallic satellites. “Wood is an effective insulator, helping to regulate temperature and minimize heat transfer, creating comfortable conditions,” noted Nisa Salim, a researcher from Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. She also emphasized that wood is easily processed, a renewable resource, and biodegradable, aligning with strategies for sustainable space exploration.

While metallic satellites withstand high temperatures upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, they release particles of aluminum, titanium, and other pollutants into the environment. Although these emissions are not yet fully understood, scientists are already warning of potential problems due to increasing launches of metallic satellites.

Wooden satellites completely burn up upon re-entry, transforming into a cloud of carbon dioxide and water vapor without leaving harmful particles. Another advantage of wood is its permeability to radio waves, enabling wooden satellites to maintain communication similar to their metallic counterparts.

However, wood has not yet been tested for its resilience to space radiation. Some experts speculate this could lead to faster-than-expected material degradation.

Drawbacks of wooden satellites also include their inability to be reused. Due to wood’s high flammability, such satellites cannot be launched using traditional methods, and nothing remains of them upon re-entry into the atmosphere. Additionally, all data from onboard sensors and measuring instruments is lost with the satellite, necessitating new satellites for each mission, theoretically increasing project costs.

Nevertheless, with LignoSat, cost savings are evident. According to Nature magazine, its total cost — approximately $191,000 for development, creation, launch, and maintenance — is significantly lower than the average cost of satellites, which can reach hundreds of millions of dollars. This low price is attributed to the use of inexpensive materials — wood instead of metals — and the specifics of orbital delivery. Wooden satellites can only be launched as part of other missions, allowing space agencies to save funds.

Inspired by LignoSat’s success, scientists from Kyoto University and Sumitomo Forestry are already considering ideas for creating wooden habitats for future space bases.

“In our initial discussions, Dr. Doi suggested building wooden houses on the Moon,” said researcher Koji Murata from Kyoto University’s biomaterials laboratory. “We also discussed the possibility of creating wooden domes on Mars for growing forest plantations.”

When colonizing the Moon or Mars, the advantages of using wood for building habitats are unlikely to be ignored. Murata plans to deepen this research in collaboration with JAXA and other companies, creating experimental wooden shelters for testing in Antarctica and on the Moon.

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