American and Japanese scientists are preparing to launch the world’s first wooden satellite next summer as an environmentally friendly alternative to the aluminum ones currently circling the Earth.
In 2020, a team of Japanese researchers tested the durability of three different types of wood in space: Erman’s birch, Japanese cherry and magnolia bovate. The samples went through exposure tests for 42 weeks on the International Space Station before they were returned to Earth earlier this year for analysis.
It was found that despite the harsh conditions of space, the wood samples returned unscathed, showing no signs of decomposition or damage.
“When you use wood on Earth, you have the problems of burning, rotting and deformation, but in space, you don’t have those problems: There is no oxygen in space, so it doesn’t burn, and no living creatures live in them, so they don’t rot,” Koji Murata, a researcher at Kyoto University, told CNN.
Based on their tests, the team determined that magnolia wood - or “Hoonoki” in Japanese - would likely make the best material for a satellite.
Wooden satellites have several advantages over the metal ones that everyone is currently using. Wood completely burns up when re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, and it doesn’t release harmful substances or debris in the process. Furthermore, electromagnetic waves can penetrate through wood, meaning components like antennae could be housed inside the satellite body instead of sticking out of it, simplifying the design.
NASA and JAXA hope to launch the joint mission next summer. Researchers will monitor the satellite for at least six months to see how it performs and decide whether wooden satellites really do have a future in space.