How Is Japan Cutting Space Pollution?
Jan 12 2021
A Japanese logging company has teamed up with Kyoto University in order to investigate constructing the world’s first wooden satellite for use in space. The collaboration aims to send its first timber satellite into the final frontier by 2023, with tests initially focusing on how wood behaves in extreme environments on planet Earth.
The reasoning behind the initiative is an attempt to cut down on the amount of space junk that is circling the Earth in orbit. At present, the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that there are approximately 6,000 satellites in our orbit, with around two-thirds of those no longer in use. Wooden structures would be less harmful to the environment and would not pose a threat to the planet upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
The space junk predicament
According to estimates made by Euroconsult, almost 1,000 new satellites are set to be launched every year of the 2020s. That will be mean that by 2030, there could be over 15,000 satellites in orbit around our planet, many of them completely defunct. Given that space junk travels at speeds of over 22,300mph, it could theoretically cause significant damage to any object which with it collides.
“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," explained Professor Takao Doi, who is involved in the new research. “Eventually it will affect the environment of the Earth.”
Professor Doi was involved in a mission to the International Space Station in 2008, during which he became the first person to ever throw a boomerang in space. Now, he is providing a lead which the rest of the world can follow in curbing our pollution and slowing climate change by investigating more sustainable materials for space missions.
A timber alternative
As a means of reducing the amount of potentially harmful waste in orbit, Japanese company Sumitomo Forestry and Kyoto University are working together to develop a prototype satellite made primarily from wood.
Professor Doi is leading the research and says the first step is determining which type of wood is best suited to the conditions of space – something which will remain a closely guarded secret of the company. Next, he will work with other engineers and scientists to develop the engineering infrastructure of the satellite, before integrating that with the flight model itself. If all goes to plan, Professor Doi and his colleagues hope to have a wooden satellite in space within three years.
It’s a novel avenue of research and a rare reprieve for the reputation of wood, which often gets a bad rap when it comes to saving the environment. For example, stove manufacturers were forced to prepare for emissions regulations after the combustion of inefficient and contaminating sources of fuel like wood and coal were heavily restricted in the EU and other countries in recent years.
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