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Researchers from Kyoto University teamed up with timber company Sumitomo Forestry and the Japan Space Agency to test wood as an environmentally friendly alternative to the metals from which satellites have so far been made.

The small wooden spacecraft, called LingoSat, is scheduled to be launched into space on a US rocket this summer.

Advantages of wood

Scientists and astronauts are concerned about the pollution caused by alumina particles that are formed by the combustion of metal satellites entering the Earth's atmosphere and remain in the upper layers of the atmosphere for many years.

In response, Japanese researchers have focused on wood as a natural, economical, carbon-based material that is sustainable in production and complete in disposal - especially when released from orbit into the upper atmosphere - and free of harmful by-products.

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Kyoto University has launched a project to evaluate wood species to determine how well they can withstand the rigors of space launches and long flights in Earth orbit.

The first tests were carried out in laboratories where conditions in space were recreated. In the experiments, it was determined that there was no measurable change in the mass of the samples prepared from wood and that they showed no signs of decay or damage.

Samples that were successful in the laboratory were prepared to be sent to the International Space Station for further testing.

"We were amazed by the ability of wood to withstand the conditions created by low earth orbit," said Koji Murata, leader of the Space Wood Project at Kyoto University, before the samples were sent into space.

Magnolia tree

Many types of wood, including Japanese cherry, were subjected to robustness tests on the International Space Station for a year. Among these samples, magnolia wood was found to be resistant to cracking. Magnolia wood was also used in the production of Lingosat.

The world's first wooden satellite LingoSat, which is only the size of a coffee mug, is planned to be launched into space this summer. The satellite is expected to remain in space for at least six months before entering the atmosphere. 

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If the LignoSat experiment is successful in orbit, it could pave the way for the use of wood as a more environmentally friendly building material in satellite production.