Satellite orbiting the earth

Japan to launch wooden satellite to tackle space junk

In geological terms, our exploration of space has barely begun, but the amount of space junk we’re producing is already piling up.

The space age technically began in October 1957, with the successful launch and orbit of Sputnik 1, a Soviet satellite which was announced to the surprise of the US at the height of the Cold War. Sputnik 1 ignited a lengthy space race between the Soviets and the US, culminating with the first men landing on the Moon in 1969.

Since 1957, tens of thousands of objects have been launched into Earth-orbit, generating a lot of what is termed ‘space junk’ – waste stemming from spent rocket boosters, fragments of dead satellites and even flecks of paint.

Waiting in the wings, Japan is preparing to change all of that, with a new wooden satellite expected in 2023.

We are very concerned with the fact that all the satellites which re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere burn and create tiny alumina particles which will float in the upper atmosphere for many years

– Takao Doi, Professor at Kyoto University and astronaut, told the BBC

The scourge of space waste

To combat the rising tide of space waste, scientists at Kyoto University in Japan are teaming up with a private company to test a wooden satellite, expected to blast off in 2023. Made by Kyoto University and Sumitomo Forestry, these new wooden satellites would reportedly burn up with minimal residue. This compares to conventional ones, which are believed to produce metallic dust in Earth’s upper atmosphere as they burn up, polluting the air.

Space debris is not just an inconvenience like rubbish down here on Earth – it can become a deadly weapon. Loose space junk trapped in Earth-orbit can reach speeds of up to 18,000 miles per hour – faster than a moving bullet, according to NASA. That means even a fleck of paint can do great damage, if it collided with the window to the International Space Station, for example.

The World Economic Forum estimates that 6,000 satellites are currently drifting above our heads – 60 per cent of which are completely inert. If they impact with different objects or each other, they risk splintering into more minute pieces of debris, generating even more dangerous fragments of high-speed debris.

Higher quantities of space waste make it harder for future satellites to function properly, as the space above our heads becomes akin to a spatial pinball game, where objects risk colliding with increasing regularity.

A better material for satellites

Beyond the fact that wood would burn up cleaner in the Earth’s atmosphere, when a satellite attempts re-entry, wood is a more suitable material for allowing the transmission of signals. Conventional satellites require some form of external antennae to communicate with mission control on Earth, but this raises the risk of hardware failure.

When it comes to transmission of signals, wood is effectively ‘transparent’, meaning a satellite with a wooden outer shell could be constructed without the need for those antennae, as signals would pass right through it. This is because wood is a nonconductive material, in contrast to various forms of metals.

When we think of space-age technology, we often think of it having a shiny, silvery aesthetic, but in order to clean up our act when it comes to debris in Earth-orbit, we might need to reimagine the future as wood-panelled and more rustic-looking.

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