ESA contributes to wooden WISA Woodsat mission

Building and launching satellites is an expensive proposition, and there are companies around the world looking to make that cheaper. The ESA has announced it will put the first wooden satellite into orbit. The sunlight is called the WISA Woodsat, and it's a 10x10x10 cm CubeSat nanosatellite built from standardized boxes.

The big difference between the satellite and others of its type is that its service panels are made from plywood. The only non-wooden external parts on the satellite are corner aluminum rails used for deployment into space and a metal selfie stick. The mission was created by a man named Jari Makinen from Finland.

He co-founded a company called Arctic Astronautics that builds fully functional replicas of orbit-ready CubeSats for education, training, and hobbyists. He says that he has always enjoyed building model aircraft that feature lots of wooden parts, and he wondered why we don't fly any wooden materials in space. He said that he had the idea to fly the first all-wooden satellite into the stratosphere aboard a weather balloon. That feat happened in 2017 with a wooden version of KitSat.

After that successful flight in 2017, the team decided to upgrade the satellite to go into orbit. The team found commercial backing and secured a berth on an Electron launcher from Rocket Lab in New Zealand. The ESA supported the mission by contributing to the WISA Woodsat's payload in return for assessing its suitability for flight.

The sensors include a pressure sensor to monitor local pressure in onboard cavities in the hours and days after launch in orbit. The ESA says that is an important factor for the turn-on of power systems and radiofrequency antennas because small amounts of molecules in the cavity can cause harm. The sensors were built by a company called Sens4 who had to strip down the standard designed to fit the limited onboard volume and power constraints of the small satellite. The result is a low-cost satellite that could have use in orbit and for testing on the ground.

The plywood used for the satellite is birch, described as the same you would find in a hardware store. However, for use in space, the wood was placed in a thermal vacuum chamber, dried out, and had a very thin aluminum oxide layer deposited using atomic layer deposition to minimize unwanted vapors from the wood while in space. Various types of varnish and lacquer will be tested on some sections of the wood.