NASA to use engineered oak in satellite safety experiment

1 April 2008

NASA scientists are turning to oak as part of a new programme to improve the safety of satellites re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.

The space shuttle Discovery, due to launch from Cape Canaveral on May 25 carrying the Kibo science laboratory to the International Space Station, will have a small experimental satellite on board made from specially engineered oak.

The issue of satellite safety was highlighted in February when the US blew up a military satellite with a missile because of fears that toxic hydrazine rocket fuel in the craft would survive re-entry.

Sections of both American and Russian satellites have also previously come back to earth, despite reaching temperatures of up to 3,000ºC when they hit the atmosphere. Most have landed in remote areas or the ocean but there are growing fears that spacecraft fragments could hit populated areas.

NASA believes using the special laminated wood, made using entirely organic resins, could improve satellite safety, as it would burn up completely on re-entry.

The project, the result of five years’ research, will see the Carpenter 1 satellite, named after the Mercury 1 pioneer astronaut Scott Carpenter, launched from Discovery at the start of June.

Its orbit has been designed for re-entry in August, with NASA hoping to time the event for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. It is believed that a “torch in the stratosphere” created by the oak igniting on entry could provide a spectactular effect in the skies above Beijing.

John White, chief executive of the UK Timber Trade Federation, said he was surprised but nevertheless “delighted” that oak was being used in space.

“New applications for wood, one of the oldest natural materials, are continually being found. This high-profile experiment is putting timber firmly in the shop window."

NASA believes the special laminated wood could improve satellite safety NASA believes the special laminated wood could improve satellite safety