A Japanese company and Kyoto University are working on a novel concept—wooden satellites. On the inside, they’ll look much like the satellites we have now, but the early concepts show a wood-box exterior. Early reporting suggested that converting to wood could help with the growing space junk problem, but that’s likely not accurate. Instead, wood satellites could have other benefits.
Believe it or not, wood isn’t an outlandish idea for a satellite housing. Wood is plentiful, easy to work with, and plenty hard for the purposes of space travel. And treated correctly, that durability and strength only increases. From a “get it up there affordably” point of view, wood may be an attractive alternative to the metals we usually use.
It also has an advantage over metal: transparency. Now, obviously, wood isn’t transparent to our eyes, but for the purposes of the wavelengths that satellites communicate, it might as well be. A metal satellite means building an external antennae that needs to unfurl in space. More parts means more points of failure. A wooden satellite could internalize that same antennae and avoid the chance of failure.
Despite reporting from the BBC and others, one thing a wooden satellite won’t help with much is space junk. As Ars Technica pointed out, most space junk isn’t satellites in the first place. It’s primarily comprised of boosters and other hardware that lifted the satellites to orbit. But even accounting for that, most satellite space junk is just that: defunct satellites orbiting the Earth without end.
If a wooden satellite dies, it too will continue to orbit. Solving the space junk problem means deorbiting the junk. That’s another process entirely. Even when that happens, there are certain considerations. Wood would burn up in the atmosphere more cleanly than metals, so score one for wooden satellites. But the internals will still be comprised of the same atmosphere polluting metals. So it’s not a total win, at least not yet.
But just because it isn’t a complete solution today doesn’t mean that it won’t be part of the complete solution tomorrow. It’ll be interesting to see how wooden satellites pan out. One thing is for certain: Space isn’t easy, and there will be plenty of problems to solve before we see the fruit of Japan’s labors.