Satellites have traditionally been made of metal but a new project called LignoSat, by a team of Japanese researchers, has tested magnolia wood as a housing material for satellites. Wood has several advantages over metal, such as flexibility, strength, and relatively lightweight. Moreover, when metal enclosures burn up during reentry, aluminum shavings remain as space debris that contributes to the ever-growing problem of space debris. This problem could be solved by using a different type of material for satellite housing.

The researchers launched an experiment to the International Space Station (ISS) for 290 days last year. Various pieces of test wood sat outside the Kibo Experimental Module on the ISS and returned to Earth in January on the CRS-26 resupply mission’s return. It was subjected to a barrage of material tests by LignoSat researchers at Kyoto University and Sumitomo Forestry, part of a large Japanese conglomerate.

Despite being constantly subjected to radiation for more than half a year, there was no significant deformation, peeling, or surface damage on any of the samples. Also, there had been no substantial change in the mass of the samples, showing that they can provide longer-term protection for any satellite innards they are housing. The wood sample that stood out was magnolia, which is relatively flexible yet provides sufficient support strength.

The researchers will continue to study the samples that have returned from the ISS, including taking a look with more powerful instruments at any degradation that might have occurred at the nano-level. That could be particularly interesting given its impact on selecting the right wood for certain applications back here on Earth.

The wood material could make smaller satellites more affordable and environment-friendly. Their lightweight construction reduces the need for fuel to launch them into space, opening up more possibilities for space exploration. The ability to burn up completely during re-entry also means that there will be less debris in space.

Wood has been used in space before, such as for the heat shield of the Apollo 13 spacecraft, but not for satellite housing. The LignoSat project is the first research to test the viability of wood as a satellite housing material in space.

LignoSat will launch on a joint NASA/JAXA mission in 2024. This project is only the first step in what could potentially be a game-changing materials journey for the future of small satellites. The use of wood could revolutionize the way we construct and launch satellites, making space exploration more cost-efficient and sustainable.


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