nanosatellite made of wood
Woodsat in orbit @ Arctic Astronautics

The small box measures just 10 by 10 by 10 centimetres. WISA Woodsat is a CubeSat, a type of nanosatellite, which is built from standardised elements but with surface panels made from plywood. The only external parts not made from wood are the aluminium corner rails used for its deployment into space plus a metal selfie stick. The mission was initiated by Jari Makinen, a Finnish writer and broadcaster and co-founder of Arctic Astronautics, a company that markets fully functional replicas of orbit-ready CubeSats for education, training and hobby purposes.

Makinen says: “I’ve always enjoyed making model planes involving a lot of wooden parts. Having worked in the space education field, this got me wondering: why don’t we fly any wooden materials in space?” His idea of first flying a wooden satellite up to the stratosphere aboard a weather balloon was put into practice in 2017. It was then decided to actually put an upgraded version into orbit. The team secured commercial backing and a berth on an electron launcher from Rocket Lab in New Zealand. Materials experts at ESA contributed a range of experimental sensors to the mission and helped with the pre-flight tests.

Woodsat’s sponsors include UPM Plywood in Finland, one of the world’s largest plywood makers. “The base material for plywood is birch, and we’re using basically just the same as you’d find in a hardware store or to make furniture,” explains Woodsat chief engineer and Arctic Astronatics co-founder Samuli Nyman. “The main difference is that ordinary plywood is too humid for space uses, so we place our wood in a thermal vacuum chamber to dry it out. Then we also perform atomic-layer deposition, adding a very thin aluminium oxide layer – typically used to encapsulate electronics. This should minimise the release of any unwanted vapours from the wood, a process known as ‘outgassing’ in the space field, while also protecting against the erosive effects of atomic oxygen. We’ll also be testing other varnishes and lacquers on some sections of the wood.”

Pre-flight testing indicates that the satellite, which will travel at an altitude of around 500 to 600 km in a roughly polar Sun-synchronous orbit, should survive its atomic oxygen exposure. However, the wood is expected to be darkened by the ultraviolet radiation of unfiltered sunlight. “In the end, Woodsat is simply a beautiful object in terms of traditional Nordic design and simplicity; it should be very interesting to see it in orbit,” says Jari Makinen. Woodsat is due to launch before the end of this year.

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