An international team of scientists, led by Kyoto University in Japan, has made an exciting breakthrough, proving the viability of wood as a material for constructing space structures.
In a statement released by the university, the scientific team’s experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS) confirmed that certain types of wood, particularly magnolia, could withstand the extreme conditions of space, showing negligible deterioration and maintaining robust stability.
Magnolia wood has the ideal properties for ‘space wood’
As part of an expansive investigation into the potential of wood for the upcoming LignoSat, the team sought to understand how the wood would fare in the severe space environment. Scientists increasingly consider timber a preferred building material for small satellites.
The scientists dispatched various wood specimens to space last year, utilising the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo on the ISS. Initial examinations were conducted, which included strength tests and assessments of the samples’ elemental and crystal structures.
After a ten-month journey in space, subjected to radical temperature fluctuations, cosmic radiation, and solar particles, the samples were retrieved by astronaut Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Following their successful retrieval, SpaceX’s CRS-26 Commercial Resupply Service mission returned the specimens to Earth.
In a major revelation, the researchers found that the samples exhibited no signs of decomposition or deformation, such as surface damage, warping, or mass alteration. This positive outcome led them to conclude that magnolia wood, given its remarkable workability and durability, should be the main construction material for LignoSat.
The LignoStella Space Wood Project
Moving from experimentation to real-world application, the LignoStella Space Wood Project was announced in April 2020 by Kyoto University and the 330-year-old Japanese forestry company Sumitomo Forestry.
In addition to managing over 40,000 hectares of FSC and PEFC-certified Japanese forest, Sumitomo Forestry is behind the ambitious w350 project to build the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper.
Why use wood in space?
Wood, particularly for small satellites known as CubeSats, brings various benefits.
For starters, it eases the design process of satellites because it allows for the penetration of electromagnetic waves. This feature facilitates the internal positioning of components, such as antennas. Another key advantage comes into play when a wooden satellite re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. Unlike traditional metal satellites, which can release potentially harmful substances like alumina particles, a wooden satellite combusts entirely, preventing the release.
Eyeing the future, the LignoStella Space Wood Project is on track to launch its first wooden satellite next year.
In a parallel development, the WISA WOODSAT project aimed to make history by launching the “world’s first wooden satellite” in 2021 using a Rocket Lab Electron vehicle. Although this launch has been postponed, the project team remains hopeful, spotlighting the potential of wood as a sustainable material for space technology.