Those old enough to remember the early days of satellites and space missions will recall that the crafts launched contained state-of-the-art materials, some of which eventually made their way into the public domain after proving their strengths is space – titanium alloys, for example. No one in the early space program would have thought to go back to the early days of the auto or train industries and use heavy, rust-prone iron, or back to the early construction days and use concrete. Yet a new satellite company has gone back even further in time for its materials and is preparing to launch the first satellite made from … wood! Really! Is this some kind of fairy-tale fantasy where it must learn its lesson to become a real satellite?
“UPM Plywood, Arctic Astronautics and Huld announce today a joint mission to launch the first ever wooden satellite, WISA WOODSAT, into Earth’s orbit by the end of 2021.
WISA Woodsat will go where no wood has gone before. With a mission to gather data on the behavior and durability of plywood over an extended period in the harsh temperatures, vacuum and radiation of space in order to assess the use of wood materials in space structures.”
In a press release, UPM Plywood -- a forest industry company based in Lahti, Finland – explains how the partnership is building a 10 x 10 x 10 cm WISA Woodsat cube satellite based on the Kitsat (Korea Institute of Technology Satellite) educational satellite. Powered by nine small solar cells, onboard sensors and cameras will be ‘protected’ by specially coated WISA®-Birch plywood. As part of its commitment to use old technology, one of the cameras will be mounted on a selfie stick for exterior imaging. Really!
“UPM’s mission as a company is to create a future beyond fossils. WISA Woodsat is made of plywood and it carries a profound message of replacing fossils with renewable wood-based materials also in very demanding applications. Houston, we have a solution.”
Does Houston KNOW it has a materials problem in need of a wooden solution? That won’t stop the WISA Woodsat launch, which is scheduled for a launch in late 2021 onboard a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle. Rocket Lab, a private American aerospace manufacturer and small satellite launch service provider with a wholly owned New Zealand subsidiary, will put the Woodsat in a polar orbit from the Mahia Peninsula launch complex in New Zealand – eventually settling it at an altitude of 500–550 km (310-341 miles) and orbiting the Earth once every 1.5 hours. For comparison purposes, that’s about the same as the Starlink satellites, but wood doesn’t reflect like they do so astronomers shouldn’t object to its presence in the night sky. Will the Starlink satellites pick on poor little Woody and give it an inferiority complex? Rocket Lab’s Senior Vice President of Global Launch Services, Lars Hoffman, doesn’t think so.
“We’re proud to provide access to orbit for this innovative mission and we’re excited to see teams like UPM, Arctic Astronautics and Huld pushing boundaries.”
Is a plywood satellite really pushing boundaries? Despite the obvious ecological advantage of wood over heavily processed and exceedingly rare metals and minerals, it’s difficult to see this going much beyond a limited number of tiny satellites with short lifespans that don’t need much durability. Will we learn anything? Well, did we learn anything from the late great Mad Mike Hughes and his steam-powered rocket … other than they can be fatal?
Perhaps the best benefit of the WISA Woodsat project is that it’s getting students involved in space, ecology, biofuels, renewables, recycling and creative thinking … and we definitely need more of all of those.