According to NASA, our space is riddled with more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, or “space junk,” as tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors. Albeit the junk is too small for tracking sensors, they are large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions. Moreover, since both the debris and spacecraft are traveling at extremely high speeds (approximately 15,700 mph in low Earth orbit), an encounter with a tiny piece of space debris can destroy missions.
Space Debris Toxicity
When we think of space junk, we look at metal bodies of disintegrating spaceships and other machinery. Space debris is non-biodegradable that may stay in space forever until such time it falls back on earth and burns up. According to the United Nations Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization), “there is a risk of a “sudden, possibly, irreversible deteriorating of the orbital environment” owing to a number of factors, not least, space debris, as well as the use of that domain for military purposes.”
The ESA Clean Space Initiative
Now, The European Space Agency or ESA is trying to address the above challenges to space health. ESA is invested in developing an eco-friendly approach to space exploration. ESA intends to adopt policies and processes to address the negative effects of industrial materials, processes, and technologies on the environment and set an example for other global space agencies to consider for their missions. In this regard, ESA set up its Clean Space initiative encompassing the whole life cycle of space missions with EcoDesign, Space Debris Mitigation, and In-orbit servicing/Active Debris Removal.
WISA Woodsat Finnish First
In line with ESA’s focus on green technology to reduce environmental toxicity, Arctic Astronautics, a Finnish company, tested WISA Woodsat on a stratospheric flight to figure out how a plywood cubesat withstands the space environment. The flight took off at 3:25 EEST and lasted for 2 hours and 54 minutes. Then, at an altitude of 31.2 km over the city of Mäntsälä, the balloon carrying the set-up exploded as planned. WISA Woodsat, a nanosatellite, measures four by four inches and weighs about one kilogram. The green part is the birch plywood (called WISA) coating of the surface panels. Powered by nine solar cells, WISA Woodsat on a “selfie-stick,” documented the reciprocity of WISA wood in the space environment.
WISA Woodsat Hits the Spruce
Birch-made WISA Woodsat fell on a large spruce tree, and from there, it was taken to Heureka for data extraction and backup. “Everything went just right,” said Samuli Nyman, WISA Woodsat’s engineer mastermind. “From the telemetry data we see nicely how the satellite was behaving and now we can see if any changes to our systems are needed. It seems we don’t have any major issues.” As planned and endeavored, the after study noted no recognizable damage to the WISA plywood surface in the space-like conditions of the stratosphere.
From Stratosphere to Space with ESA
According to Arctic Astronautics, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket will launch the actual satellite to an orbit of over 500 km altitude by the end of June 2021. Now that WISA Woodsat completed its stratospheric flight, the focus is on constructing the flight model and its spare. The new spare will be transported in early July to ESTEC, the technical center of The European Space Agency, in Noordwijk, Netherlands. After that, a space condition simulator will test the satellite will go through a shaking test, which simulates the vibrations and shaking caused by a rocket ride. After these tests, the team will go on with the final preparations of the satellite for the space flight.
The Close Proximation
The question is, biodegradation can only happen on earth as the subject can return to the soil. Such is not the case with a biodegradable subject in the space. That way, humankind can develop wooden spaceships, wooden space stations, or wooden satellites. Still, it cannot biodegrade any of them in space, and hence the complete removal of space debris is an impossible pursuit. Progress, in this case, is proximity to the ideal, and hence launching WISA Woodsat is a grand feat soon after Jeff Bezos takes off on Blue Origin. Kudos to Arctic Astronautics for finishing it before Japan boasting to launch its first satellite made out of wood in 2023.
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