Wooden satellites? Scientists successfully test the durability of space wood

One of the most ancient building materials has some surprising benefits when it comes to building small satellites.
Chris Young
The International Space Station orbiting Earth.
The International Space Station orbiting Earth.

Darryl Fonseka / iStock 

An international team of scientists led by Kyoto University in Japan successfully tested wood as a building material aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The team tested the durability of space wood and found that it showed minimal deterioration and good stability, a press statement reveals.

The samples were selected as potential materials for the upcoming wooden artificial satellite LignoSat. Surprisingly, scientists are increasingly turning their attention to wood as a viable sustainable building material for small satellites.

Scientists highlight magnolia as the ideal space wood

The team behind the space wood test carried out a preliminary inspection including strength tests and elemental and crystal structural analyses of wood samples aboard the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo of the ISS.

The different wood specimens were released into space last year and then retrieved by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata, who flew to the ISS aboard SpaceX's Crew-5 mission. They were then returned to Earth by SpaceX's CRS-26 Commercial Resupply Service mission.

The wood samples were exposed to the harsh conditions of space — including massive temperature changes and exposure to cosmic radiation and solar particles — for a total of ten months. Impressively, tests confirmed that no decomposition or deformations, such as surface damage, warping, or mass change occurred.

Based on their findings, the research team determined that the upcoming LignoSat should be built using Magnolia wood, due to its high workability and its durability.

Why use wood in space?

In April 2020, Kyoto University and Sumitomo Forestry, a Japanese logging company, announced the LignoStella Space Wood Project in a bid to develop sustainable satellites using wood. The project derives its name from the fact that "ligno" means related to wood, while "stella" means star.

Surprisingly, wood can also help to improve small satellite, or CubeSat, designs. As electromagnetic waves can penetrate wood, wooden satellites can utilize a simplified design whereby parts such as the antennas are placed inside, as in the image below.

Wooden satellites? Scientists successfully test the durability of space wood
The WISA WOODSAT prototype.

Wood will also completely burn up on re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. Unlike the metals used for traditional satellites, it won't release harmful substances like alumina particles.

The LignoStella Space Wood Project aims to launch its first wooden artificial satellite into orbit next year. Another project called WISA WOODSAT was due to launch the "world's first wooden satellite" to space aboard a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle in 2021, but that launch was delayed and has yet to take to the skies.

In the case of WISA WOODSAT, the satellite's outer layer of plywood was envisioned to represent the sponsorship of the plywood manufacturer WISA. However, the team behind it has more recently also highlighted the sustainable benefits of wood as a space material.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board