A Japanese project tests the idea of using wood as a component in the construction of satellites


Japanese company Sumitomo Forestry has announced a joint development project with Kyoto University to test the idea of using wood as a component in satellite construction.

As part of the announcement, officials with Sumitomo Forestry told reporters that work on the project will begin with experiments designed to test different types of wood in extreme environments.

Some of the major components in most satellites include aluminum, Kevlar and aluminum alloys, which are able to withstand both temperature extremes and constant bombardment by radiation – all in a vacuum.

Unfortunately, these characteristics also allow satellites to remain in orbit long after their usefulness has ended, resulting in constant additions to the space junk orbiting the planet. According to the World Economic Forum, there are currently approximately 6,000 satellites circling the Earth but only 60% of them are still in use.

Some in the field have predicted that nearly 1,000 satellites will be launched into space each year over the coming decade. Considering their lifespan, this suggests there could be thousands more dead satellites orbiting the planet in the coming years.

This space debris poses a significant threat to other satellites (they all travel thousands of miles per hour) and also to manned space missions. Most in the space community agree that space junk is becoming a serious problem.

And there is more bad news – the aluminum used in satellites has been found to break apart when a satellite returns to Earth, creating hundreds or thousands of tiny alumina particles that wind up floating in the upper atmosphere for many years, possibly posing an environmental problem. For all these reasons, the researchers with this new project are looking to replace these materials with wood.

The major benefit of wood-based satellites is they would burn up completely when returning to Earth.

But another major bonus of using wood to create the outer shell of a satellite is that electromagnetic waves would pass right through it, which means antennas could be placed inside of satellite structures, making them simpler to design and deploy.

The researchers plan to look for appropriate wood candidates and then to conduct experiments to see it they could be treated to stand up to space conditions. They predict they will have a product ready for testing by 2023.

Few other environmental topics have garnered as much widespread public interest as plastic pollution. Synthetic plastic waste, be it macro or microplastic, is now known to be pervasive throughout the Earth’s biosphere, including in land and marine environments far from human populations. The many documented negative impacts of this plastic assault on human health and our environment provide powerful motivation to urgently seek out new solutions, which could arise from the unique ability to conduct research and observe Earth from space.

The International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory held its second annual sustainability workshop during the 2019 ISS Research and Development Conference (ISSRDC). The workshop brought together 13 invited organizations representing several economic sectors—aerospace, agricultural sciences, technology innovation, sports, retail, advanced computing, environmental, space, and government research—to discuss how the ISS can uniquely contribute to industry actions addressing plastic pollution in the environment.

At the workshop, two ideas for leveraging the ISS to address the issue of plastic pollution were proposed: 1) the development of advanced sensors for the detection and monitoring of plastic debris in the ocean, and 2) use of the unique microgravity environment to advance the development of biodegradable polymers.

The development of advanced sensors that can accurately detect near-surface or beneath-surface waterborne plastic debris from space could significantly benefit plastic pollution prevention and cleanup efforts—not only for the open ocean but ultimately in waterways around major coastal urban cities that are known to be major entry points for ocean plastic debris.

Although no current space-based sensor has demonstrated such capability, the DLR Earth Sensing Imaging Spectrometer (DESIS, a hyperspectral sensor on the ISS) and sensors on other satellites may have the potential. Testing and field verification activities with DESIS and other sensors are currently being organized by a network group formed by the 2019 ISSRDC sustainability workshop participants. Positive results from this work could drive forward the design and development of advanced marine plastic debris sensors.

Not only is the ISS positioned to assist in the monitoring and cleanup of already existing plastic debris, it may also be used to test whether microgravity can provide new insights into pathways for the cost-effective production of biodegradable biopolymers. The production of bioplastics in space has not been systematically attempted before. However, prior investigations have demonstrated bacterial and fungal responses to reduced gravity that alter gene expression and physiological responses.

This prior work leads to a reasonable expectation that perhaps desirable metabolites (i.e., bioplastic precursors) could be synthesized in microgravity. Such research could reveal new insights that may accelerate ongoing Earth-based work to efficiently scale up biodegradable biopolymer production via biological synthesis pathways.

To learn more about the ideas presented at the 2019 ISSRDC sustainability workshop, see the report “International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory Initiatives to Address Plastic Pollution.”


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