Nasa and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are planning to send the LignoSat probe, the world’s first wooden satellite, into the Earth’s orbit this year. The small satellite was built in collaboration between Kyoto University and Sumitomo Forestry, a local logging company. The handheld-sized probe aims to see whether wood can serve as a sustainable alternative to the metals currently used to build all satellites.  

The LignoSat probe is made from magnolia wood, which the International Space Station found to be crack-resistant and remarkably stable after nearly yearlong exposure trials in space. Koji Murata, head of the project, attributes this durability to the absence of oxygen or living organisms in space that could cause the wood to burn or decay. 

Research published in 2021 from the University of British Columbia, Canada, found that the aluminium from satellites re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere could seriously deplete the ozone layer. This layer is crucial for shielding the Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation and could impact the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface. Satellites built with biodegradable materials, like the LignoSat probe, circumvent this threat by producing only biodegradable ash as they quickly burn upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. 

The success of the LignoSat probe operation could revolutionise satellite construction, fostering wider adoption of wood to build satellites. 

The shift towards more sustainable space operations 

The LignoSat probe operation is representative of the broader trend toward making space operations more sustainable. The threat space debris poses to other objects in space is a particularly prominent concern. The commercialisation of space has crowded the Earth’s orbit with human-made objects. As of September 2023, there are currently over 130 million pieces of space debris in orbit, according to the EU Space Agency. The likelihood of collisions will rise as more objects are launched into space. 

In 2023, the US Government issued the world’s first space debris fine to DISH Network for failing to deorbit a decommissioned satellite properly. In 2024, GlobalData expects more governments to implement national regulations to reduce debris creation on the back of the US leadership on this issue.  

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There has also been investment in developing new, more environmentally friendly means of propulsion to replace chemical rockets. For instance, in 2021 the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) commissioned three private companies, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and General Atomics, to develop nuclear fission thermal rockets for use in lunar orbit. The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program aims to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system above low Earth orbit by 2025. 

Making space operations more sustainable is important given the number of planned satellites has increased significantly, driven by the growing popularity of constellation projects for the internet and other communication applications. SpaceX intends to expand its Starlink LEO constellation to over 12,000 satellites while China has announced plans to build two 13,000 and 12,000-satellite mega-constellations. If all proposed constellations materialise, McKinsey estimates there will be over 65,000 satellites in orbit by 2030. 

In the long term, public pressure and government regulation will force the space industry to find low-carbon solutions to guarantee the longevity of the space economy. The LignoSat probe could provide one such solution.