A Japanese company and Kyoto University are working on a new concept –wooden satellites. Inside, they’ll look a lot like the satellites we have now, but early concepts show a wooden exterior. Early reports suggested that converting to wood could help solve the growing problem of space waste, but that’s probably not accurate. Instead, wooden satellites could have other benefits.
Believe it or not, wood isn’t a crazy idea for a satellite box. The wood is plentiful, easy to work, and very hard for space travel. And treated properly, that durability and strength only increases. From an “affordable fit” perspective, wood can be an attractive alternative to the metals we usually use.
It also has an advantage over metal: transparency. Now, of course, wood isn’t transparent to us, but for the purposes of the wavelengths that satellites communicate, it might as well be. A metallic satellite means building an external antenna that must deploy into space. More parts means more points of failure. A wooden satellite could internalize these same antennas and avoid the risk of breakdown.
Despite BBC report and others, one thing a wooden satellite won’t help much with is space waste. As Ars Technica highlighted, most space junk isn’t satellites in the first place. It is mostly made up of boosters and other hardware that put the satellites into orbit. But even taking that into account, most of the satellite space junk is just that: dead satellites orbiting the Earth endlessly.
If a wooden satellite dies, it will also continue to orbit. Solving the problem of space waste means deorbing the waste. It’s a whole other process. Even when this happens, there are certain considerations. Wood would burn in the atmosphere cleaner than metals, so mark one for wooden satellites. But the internal components will always be composed of the same atmospheric polluting metals. So it’s not a total victory, at least not yet.
But just because it’s not a complete solution today doesn’t mean it won’t be part of the complete solution tomorrow. It will be interesting to see how the wooden satellites play out. One thing is certain: space is not easy and there will be a lot of problems to be resolved before we see the fruits of Japan’s labor.