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New Zealand to Launch World’s First Wooden Satellite

Image credit: cnet.com/news

The world’s first wooden satellite will be launched into orbit by the European Space Agency (ESA) by the end of this year using an electron rocket from the Mahia Peninsula launch complex in New Zealand. The satellite plans to orbit at around 500-600 km altitude in a polar sun-synchronous orbit and will complete a full orbit every one hour and 30 minutes.

The satellite’s mission is to test the suitability of wooden materials such as plywood in spacecraft structures by exposing them to extreme space conditions such as heat, cold, vacuum, and radiation over a prolonged length of time.

Another objective of this project is to transmit on amateur radio frequencies using a communication method that permits a basic, low-power receiver to pick up the wooden satellite’s signal. The information it will deliver will come from two separate cameras and some modest sensors. This will be part of the project’s educational mission.

The 10x10x10 cm nanosatellite is made out of standardised boxes and plywood surface panels, which are often purchased in hardware stores and used to make furniture. The wood has been placed in a thermal vacuum chamber to keep it dry when it is launched into space. ESA has added a very thin aluminium oxide layer to protect against the erosive effects of atomic oxygen while also reducing unwanted vapours from the wood, known as ‘outgassing’ in the space field.

The other item added to the satellite is a quartz crystal microbalance, serving as a highly sensitive contamination monitoring tool, measuring any faint deposits in the nanogram range coming from onboard electronics as well as the wooden surfaces themselves.

Next to it will be a basic LED with a photoresistor that senses as it lights up. The LED will be powered by a 3D-printed electrically conductive plastic known as polyether ether ketone, or PEEK for short, which opens up the possibility of printing power or even data links right into the bodies of future space missions.

The only non-wooden parts of the satellite are the corner aluminium rails that are used to deploy it into space and a metal selfie stick. With its camera, the selfie stick can take images of the satellite and see how the plywood is reacting. Therefore, it can reveal any cracks in the plywood or any colour changes, as the wood is expected to darken due to unfiltered sunlight’s ultraviolet radiation.

ESA will also be attaching a suite of sensors to the satellite to monitor if and how the satellite would survive the severe conditions of lower earth orbit. The first item on board would be a pressure sensor, which would allow them to determine the local pressure in onboard cavities in the hours and days after it is launch into orbit. The sensors also include a contamination monitoring tool that will measure any sensitive deposits happening on either the circuit board or the wooden body of the satellite.

A development prototype of the wooden satellite was sent into the stratosphere using a balloon just last week on June 12. It was carried out at Finland’s Heureka Science Center to test the satellite’s camera and other communications equipment. The test flight was successful and the prototype was hoisted to a height of roughly 31.2 kilometres and remained in the air for about three hours. If the mission of launching this satellite is successful, it would validate the feasibility of treated wood as an inexpensive and abundant alternative material for use in space applications.

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