A Japanese company and the University of Kyoto are working on a new concept: wooden satellites. Inside they look a lot like the satellites we have now, but the early concepts show an outside of a wooden box. Early reporting suggested that converting to wood could help with the problem of growing space junk, but that̵
Believe it or not, wood isn’t a bizarre satellite enclosure idea. Wood is plentiful, easy to work with, and much difficult for aerospace purposes. And treated correctly, that durability and strength will only increase. From a ‘get it affordable’ perspective, wood can be an attractive alternative to the metals we commonly use.
It also has an advantage over metal: transparency. Now, of course, wood isn’t transparent to our eyes, but to the wavelengths with which satellites communicate, it might as well be. A metal satellite means building external antennas to unfold in space. More parts means more points of failure. A wooden satellite could internalize those same antennas and prevent the risk of failure.
Despite reports from the BBC and others, one thing a wooden satellite doesn’t help much is space junk. As Ars Technica noted, most space junk isn’t satellites in the first place. It mainly consists of boosters and other hardware that put the satellites into orbit. But even if we explain that, most satellite space junk is just that: defunct satellites orbiting the Earth without end.
When a wooden satellite dies, it also continues to orbit the Earth. Solving the space junk problem means getting rid of the clutter. That is a completely different process. Even when that happens, there are certain considerations. Wood is said to burn more cleanly in the atmosphere than metals, so score one for wooden satellites. But the inside will still consist of the same air-polluting metals. So it’s not a total victory, at least not yet.
But just because it isn’t a complete solution today, doesn’t mean it won’t be part of the complete solution tomorrow. It will be interesting to see how wooden satellites stand out. One thing is certain, space is not easy and there will be many problems to be resolved before we see the fruits of the Japanese work.