A cube covered in solar panels orbiting above clouds.
Enlarge / An experimental satellite tv for pc, not made from wooden, that was used to check concepts for orbital junk removing.

We right here at Ars have been considerably shocked to stumble throughout a BBC headline indicating {that a} university-industry partnership in Japan was engaged on creating wood satellites. The plan is much less insane than it sounds—wooden is a outstanding materials that is largely unappreciated due to its ubiquity. However a lot of the causes to shift to wooden give within the protection of the plan fully misses the mark.

To the diploma that there’s a plan, at the least. In accordance with the BBC and different protection, the partnership is between Kyoto College and an organization referred to as Sumitomo Forestry. However neither the college nor the corporate has any data on the challenge accessible on the English-language variations of their web sites. The BBC article will get all its quotes from Takao Doi, who’s at the moment school at Kyoto College. In accordance with Doi, the collaboration is on monitor to be manufacturing flight fashions of wood satellites by 2023.

Whereas wooden might appear to be a horrific match for the cruel setting of area, the thought could seem much less insane should you consider wooden by way of its structural composition: a mixture of two strong polymers, cellulose and lignin. The energy and sturdiness of wooden relies upon closely on the ratio of those polymers and what’s additionally current within the combine with them. Nevertheless it’s additionally doable to bodily and chemically deal with wooden to change its properties additional. One model of wooden was as robust as aluminum by some measures, and had some attention-grabbing further properties. And a forestry firm might be anticipated to have in depth data of the way to course of wooden.

The query is whether or not wooden has any materials properties that make it a greater match for satellites than any different materials. Nikkei Asia signifies that one potential benefit is that wooden is clear to many wavelengths that satellites use to speak, doubtlessly eliminating the necessity for exterior antennae. If stated antennae would in any other case have to unfurl after a satellite tv for pc reaches orbit, this might remove one potential supply of {hardware} failure.

However the protection by the BBC and others focuses on area junk. This can be a actual drawback, as the quantity of defunct satellites and random particles in low Earth orbit has created hazards for the useful stuff we would wish to maintain there. The whole lot from scientific observatories to the Worldwide Area Station have needed to be maneuvered round passing bits of junk.

Sadly, making satellite tv for pc housings out of wooden will not assist with this, for a lot of, many causes. To begin with, quite a lot of the junk is not ex-satellites; it is usually the boosters and different {hardware} that acquired them to orbit within the first place. Housings are additionally solely a fraction of the fabric in a satellite tv for pc, leaving plenty of further junk untouched by the change, and any wooden that is strong sufficient to operate as an efficient satellite tv for pc housing can be extraordinarily harmful if it impacts something at orbital speeds.

Many of the protection appears to current wood satellites as serving to with the area junk drawback due to the truth that wooden would expend when it de-orbits. However these things is area junk exactly as a result of it would not de-orbit. All of our plans for dealing with the present abundance of area junk contain discovering a strategy to induce it to depart orbit. Wooden will not make any distinction right here.

The one level that wooden might need in its favor, famous in a few of the protection and by Doi himself, is that it will not go away a lot within the environment if it does de-orbit and expend. Most different {hardware} will vaporize right into a fuel of aluminum and numerous different metals, maybe oxidized. Once more, having a wooden housing will not remove these metals, on condition that lots of them come from the satellites parts and the rocket that put them in place. And, at the least for the foreseeable future, this materials will not be current within the environment at excessive sufficient ranges to be significant.

Given all this, it is fully unclear what drawback wood satellites are supposed to resolve. Nonetheless, the thought of determining the way to course of wooden in order that it might operate on this context is an intriguing supplies science drawback, and might need some very down-to-earth functions. So, here is to hoping that the challenge goes forward regardless.

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