WISA concept art for wooden satellite

Wooden satellite due for launch by end of 2021

Image credit: WISA Plywood

The WISA Woodsat project, which is being sponsored by a plywood supplier in an unconventional PR drive, could place a wooden satellite in orbit by the end of the year, testing the suitability of treated wood as a cheap space material.

The wooden satellite is based on a basic, versatile CubeSat format, Kitsat, which is designed with educational use in mind. It retails for just $1,500. The Woodsat project, based in Finland, began with students across the country contributing parts to a CubeSat launched by balloon.

The latest mission is a joint venture between UPM Plywood, design house Huld and space tech firm Arctic Astronautics, which designed the Kitsat. The students are working with these organisations to build a hardier version of the Kitsat ('WISA Woodsat') for launch into polar orbit.

The launch will take place from the Mahia Peninsula launch complex in New Zealand, using a Rocketlab launch vehicle. It is hoped that the launch will take place before the end of the year.

The satellite will be 10cm cubed, weigh 1kg and will be covered on all sides by coated birch plywood from supplier WISA plywood, which is sponsoring the launch. The satellite will be powered by nine small solar cells. It will orbit at an altitude of 500-550km and complete a full orbit every 90 minutes. The plywood will be exposed to extreme temperatures, space radiation, and vacuum pressure.

A statement said: “WISA Woodsat will go where no wood has gone before. With a mission to gather data on the behaviour 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.”

Once in orbit, a selfie stick will extend from the orbiting satellite, capturing photographs of the wooden box hurtling through space at 40,000km/h. This will allow the mission leaders to monitor the impact of the environment on the plywood.

The plan is to use a simple, low-power receiver to pick up the satellite’s signal and then broadcast information from its sensor suite and two cameras, using frequencies available for amateur radio.

“The wooden satellite with a selfie stick will surely bring laughter and goodwill,” added mission manager Jari Mäkinen of Arctic Astronautics. “Essentially, this is a serious science and technology endeavour. In addition to testing plywood, the satellite will demonstrate accessible radio amateur satellite communication; host several secondary technology experiments; validate the Kitsat platform in orbit, and popularise space technology.”

If the mission is successful, it would validate the feasibility of treated wood as an inexpensive and abundant alternative material for use in space applications.

“We can test many things in our laboratories, but the ultimate test for space worthiness can only be done in space,” said Ari Voutilainen, space project manager for UPM Plywood, speaking to The Independent. “The space industry is constantly looking for material innovations for spacecraft and space stations. We are working with the European Space Agency to see if wood and plywood in particular can be used for those purposes.”

A haggis took flight by weather balloon to celebrate Burns Night this January. While reaching heights never before attained by a haggis in recorded history, it did not reach space, which is generally defined as 100km above the surface of Earth (the Kármán Line).

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