Story at a glance

  • Satellites and other debris are beginning to collect in space, posing a risk to space operations.
  • A Japanese astronaut is working with a team to solve the problem using wood.
  • Once launched, wooden satellites would burn up upon return to Earth.

Junk, by definition, is to be discarded. But in space, junk can also become a fatal threat. 

The NASA currently tracking more than than 500,000 pieces of debris, or “space junk," orbiting the Earth at dangerous speeds. Some of those are from now-defunct satellites, either abandoned in space or broken off upon return. 

"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, Japanese astronaut - the first to throw a boomerang in space - and a professor at Kyoto University, told the BBC. "Eventually it will affect the environment of the Earth." 


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So the university is partnering with a Japanese company to test a potential solution: wooden spaceships. Wooden satellites would burn up in space, which is both the point and also the problem.

But how will it work? Sumitomo Forestry told BBC that they are developing wooden materials that are resistant to temperature changes and sunlight, testing them in some of earth’s harshest environments. What kind of wood they’re using is an "R&D secret," or research and development secret, a spokesperson told BBC. 

"The next stage will be developing the engineering model of the satellite, then we will manufacture the flight model," Doi told BBC. 

The company, which is part of the Sumitomo Group, has been recognized by the CDP for its work in regards to climate change and is working towards using 100 percent renewable energy for its operations by 2040. 


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Published on Dec 29, 2020