The satellite would burn instead of becoming more space debris.
- Orbiting around Earth are hundreds of thousands of bits of space debris.
- Some of this stuff comes plummeting down eventually, but not enough of it.
- Wood satellites would burn up in the atmosphere without falling on anyone or anything.
It makes sense that this idea comes from the country that brought us origami, those lovely and often diabolically complicated artworks of folded paper. With Earth now surrounded by an orbiting junkyard of satellites, scientists at Kyoto University and Sumitomo Forestry in Japan have proposed a surprising solution: satellites made of wood.
It's a mess up there
Credit: JohanSwanepoel/Adobe Stock
NASA is currently tracking over 500,000 pieces of satellite debris circling the Earth. These bits of mostly aluminum junk whip around the planet as fast as 17,500 mph and constitute a floating minefield that active and manned space vehicles have to find their way through without being struck, or worse, punctured. And those are just the bits large enough to be tracked—those bigger than a marble. There are many more too small to keep an eye on. And the situation is getting worse, with projects such as SpaceX's estimated 42,000 satellites or Amazon's Kuiper project.
The wood satellites being developed won't do much to solve that problem. However, they will help out with another one: what happens to space debris when its orbit decays and it falls back to Earth? We've been lucky so far. No serious impacts have yet been documented, but with all the discarded metal up there, it seems only a matter of time until something hits somebody or some important thing here on the ground. On top of that, some of it never falls all the way down, and is left as tiny bits of floating metal in the atmosphere.
Japanese astronaut and professor at Kyoto University Takao Doi tells the BBC, "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."
(Fun side note: During Doi's visit to the ISS in March 2008, he became the first person to throw a boomerang in space. It was designed specifically for microgravity.)
The proposed wooden satellites to be launched by 2023 will simply burn up harmlessly on their way down through the atmosphere.
Credit: Geran de Klerk/Unsplash
If anyone knows how to construct a wood satellite, it would be Sumitomo Forestry, a company that has been foresting and developing wood products for 400 years. Their website declares that "Happiness grows from trees." In addition to the satellite project, the company is also in the process of designing a mostly wood, $5.8 billion Tokyo skyscraper to be completed by 2041.
The proposed satellites won't be made of just any wood. The researchers consider its exact formulation to be a trade secret, releasing little in the way of detail. It is known that it will have to be resistant to the temperature extremes it will encounter in space, and the scientists are reportedly considering both the basic material to be used as well as special wood-derived coatings.
The wooden satellites may have some advantages in functionality. With wood not being an obstacle to various communication wavelengths, the devices may need less extensive antennae.
Even so, the proposed satellites, though novel and sort of poetic, may not ultimately be of much help. Satellite casings are just a small part of the space-junk problem—their metal and plastic insides are also left up there to bang into other stuff. There are also lots of spent rocket boosters and such in orbit.
All of which brings us back to the larger issue of all the debris that never falls back to Earth, as the wooden satellites are meant to. The problem with all this stuff isn't what happens upon re-entry. It never re-enters at all, circling the planet ad infinitum as part of that great garbage dump in the sky.
- NASA proposes an updated treaty for peaceful cooperation in space.
- The Artemis Accords aim to address potential off-planet conflicts before they happen, modernizing previous agreements.
- The proposal was prompted by the U.S. effort to return to the Moon, India's attempts to establish a presence there, and China's current Chang'e-4 mission.
We've really just taken baby steps into space, and already our off-planet activity is making it look a bit like the Wild West up there. It's not just government-sponsored science orbiting the planet, but also craft launched by private space entrepreneurs looking to score major paydays by being the first ones in. Look up at the right time of the evening to see a glittering wagon train of Starlink satellites traversing the night skies just because Elon Musk says so. Competition is already heating up between nations and industries for presumed space resources.
NASA hopes this isn't how it has to be, or how it will be, if governments and industry just hit the pause button long enough to think things through. In a bid to get a sensible conversation started, the U.S. space agency has just proposed a comprehensive treaty for Earthlings in space: The Artemis Accords. It is designed as an expansion and supplement to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.
How far the Accords get depends on the wisdom of its proposed signatories, of course. Humanity — Remember us? Big fans of greed, competition, and self-destructive behavior? — has a not-great track record when it comes to doing the smart thing, but the Artemis Accords are a good start.
The Artemis Accords
NASA describes the Accords as "Principles for a Safe, Peaceful, and Prosperous Future." The anticipated American return to the moon by 2024 serves as the reason to begin addressing the peaceful use of space at this moment. China's Chang'e-4 mission is there now, and India plans another attempt at a lunar landing of its Chandrayaan-3 mission.
The idea is for Artemis to be the foundation of a voluntary partnership between relevant entities in establishing a "sustainable and robust" presence on the Moon, and reducing human conflict in space going forward.
"With numerous countries and private sector players conducting missions and operations in cislunar space, it's critical to establish a common set of principles to govern the civil exploration and use of outer space. International space agencies that join NASA in the Artemis program will do so by executing bilateral Artemis Accords agreements, which will describe a shared vision for principles, grounded in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, to create a safe and transparent environment which facilitates exploration, science, and commercial activities for all of humanity to enjoy."
The Artemis Accords are divided into 10 sections:
Image source: NASA
NASA considers the core of the Artemis program to be adherence to the principles laid out in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 that commits signatories to the use of space for peaceful purposes and to foster cooperation.
The earlier document doesn't allow signing nations to:
- Place in orbit around the Earth or other celestial bodies any nuclear weapons or objects carrying WMD.
- Install WMD on celestial bodies or station WMD in outer space in any other manner.
- Establish military bases or installations, test "any type of weapons," or conduct military exercises on the moon and other celestial bodies.
Image source: Gregg Newton/Getty Images
Artemis requires partners to be open about their policies, plans, and activities in space.
On Earth, we can't even agree of screwheads. Seen here: slot screwhead, Philips screwhead, Robertson screwhead, hexagonal screwhead
Image source: Big Think
NASA is calling in Artemis for the development of open international standards that would allow interoperability between partners' hardware. Common standards allow for an easier exchange of data between devices, simpler connectivity and repair, and reduces the need for each partner to devise its own method of achieving shared tasks.
Image source: OgnjenO/Shutterstock/Big Think
Artemis builds upon the 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts, and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space. Partners must commit to making every reasonable effort to aid astronauts in distress.
Registration of Space Objects
In order to keep everyones' craft out of each others' way, and to help ensure the safety of everyone and everything up there, Artemis requires signers to register their space objects. The U.N estimates that about 87 percent of space objects are currently registered.
Release of Scientific Data
Image source: NASA
Artemis requires signatories to openly share their scientific findings for the benefit of humanity as a whole. NASA already does this.
Image source: NASA
As off-planet historical sites add up — the U.S. moon landing site is one — Artemis partners agree to protect such locations for their shared historical value.
Image source: M-SUR/Shutterstock
This requirement may turn out to be contentious given the potentially profits involved: An agreement to share access to resources in accordance with Articles II, VI, and XI of the Outer Space Treaty.
Deconfliction of Activities
Image source: AleksandrMorrisovich/Shutterstock/Big Think
Artemis partners must agree to afford other nations "due regard," and participate in notification and coordination with other parities to avoid harmful interference with each others' activities.
Orbital Debris and Spacecraft Disposal
Artemis partners agree to collectively plan for the reentry of orbital debris and to develop safe systems for the disposal of craft no longer in service.
You can download a [copy of the Artemis Accords here].