Isn’t it Good, Satellites Made of Wood?

Article By : George Leopold

The European Space Agency is backing a demonstration mission that will loft a wooden CubeSat equipped with 3D-printed components.

If all goes as planned, a CubeSat constructed from birch wood—yes, a wooden satellite—will be launched early next year as part of a technology demonstration backed by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The WISA Woodsat mission will also demonstrate a suite of ESA sensors along with 3D-printed circuits provided by Zortrax, a Polish 3D printing specialist. The company’s technology distributes graphene nano-particles and carbon nanotubes to print conductive pathways.

WISA Woodsat is a 10- by-10-by-10cm CubeSat constructed from standardized boxes with surface panels made from plywood. The only metal components are corner aluminum rails and metal selfie stick that will be deployed on orbit.

Prototype 3D printed circuit developed for the European Space Agency. (Source: Zortax)

“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,” said Samuli Nyman, Woodsat chief engineer and co-founder of Arctic Astronautics. The only difference is the wood is dried in a thermal vacuum chamber before depositing a thin layer of aluminum oxide frequently used to encapsulate electronics.

The wooden CubeSat was originally scheduled to be launched later this year from New Zealand. The satellite builder announced on Oct. 15 the mission has been pushed into next year due to a frequency licensing issue that will require a change of radio equipment.

Along with 3D printed circuits, the wooden payload will carry a suite of experimental sensors developed by ESA.

Jari Makinen, who conceived the CubeSat mission, said the idea for a wooden satellite came while constructing model airplanes with many wooden parts. “Having worked in the space education field, this got me wondering: Why don’t we fly any wooden materials in space?” Makinen said.

Demonstration 3D circuit installed on WISA Woodsat board. (Source: Zortrax)

“I had the idea first of all to fly a wooden satellite up to the stratosphere, aboard a weather balloon. That happened in 2017, with a wooden version of KitSat. That having gone well, we decided to upgrade it and actually go into orbit. From there the project just snowballed,” he added. “We found commercial backing, and secured a berth on an Electron launcher from Rocket Lab in New Zealand.”

Along with testing ESA sensors in low-earth orbit, the mission also will demonstrate 3D-printed electrical circuits. The devices were developed under an ESA initiative to demonstrate composite 3D printing techniques that could be used to fabricate space components based on embedded polymeric-based electrical circuits.

Zortax said the CubeSat mission will also attempt to transmit the first ever message routed through a 3D-printed device made entirely of high-performance polymers.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

George Leopold has written about science and technology from Washington, D.C., since 1986. Besides EE Times, Leopold’s work has appeared in The New York Times, New Scientist, and other publications. He resides in Reston, Va.


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