New wooden satellite is part advertising, part student project

Artist's conception of the satellite in orbit.

Late last year, we were extremely skeptical of reports regarding a plan for wooden satellites that seemed confused about what could be gained from using the natural material. But a wooden satellite looks like it might get to orbit later this year, via a project we can fully endorse. It’s a bit of silly advertising by a plywood manufacturer that will ensure that a student project gets sent to space.

The project, based in Finland, is called the WISA WOODSAT, and it has taken a bit of an indirect route to orbit. The design is based on cubesat format called Kitsat, which is intended for student projects. If the goal is simply to expose students to what it takes to make a compact satellite (the design is a 10 cm/side cube), the satellite can be built using cheap, easy-to-obtain hardware. But it can also be made using space-rated materials and sent to orbit.

The WOODSAT started out as more of the former, with students around the country contributing different parts to a cubesat that was then taken aloft by a balloon. But now, with an opportunity to go to orbit, another version is getting an upgrade to survive the harsh environment.

That ride to orbit is being provided by the supplier of the wooden sides that give the satellite its name, with WISA being a supplier of plywood. The company is sponsoring the launch and, in turn, the sides of the satellite will be covered in its product. A boom with a camera will be extended once in orbit, allowing images of the wood to be sent back down from space. Ostensibly, this is to monitor the impact of the environment on WISA’s product, but even its mission manager, Jari Mäkinen, admits “The Wooden satellite with a selfie stick will surely bring laughter and goodwill.”

Still, there’s more to the satellite than its wooden walls. The plan is to use a communication technology that allows a simple, low-power receiver to pick up the WOODSAT’s signal, and it will broadcast on frequencies dedicated to amateur radio. The data it will provide comes from some simple centures and two different cameras. This will be part of the project’s educational mission.

Plans are to place the satellite in a polar orbit using a Rocketlab launch vehicle. The hope is to send it to space before the year’s over.

Are we going to learn anything interesting about wood from this? Almost certainly not. Still, you have to appreciate WISA for being willing to put up the money to send a student project to space.