ORLANDO, Fla., June 23 (UPI) -- An educational space technology company in Finland, Arctic Astronautics Ltd., plans to launch this fall a tiny 2-pound satellite made mostly of wood, named Woodsat, as a science experiment and to encourage interest in space.
Small launch company Rocket Lab plans to carry the Woodsat into space aboard an Electron rocket lifting off from New Zealand.
The goal of the mission is to determine how wood and how instruments carried on the satellite behave in space, Samuli Nyman, chief technology officer of Arctic Astronautics, said in an interview.
"Wood has been used in aviation, and model airplanes especially, for a long time," Nyman said. "And it turns out, wood has some special properties in space. It is anti-magnetic, which can be important, and it can withstand the extreme cold of space, whereas metal and plastic can become brittle in extreme cold."
Woodsat has attracted attention from corporations and media around the world and elicited cooperation from the European Space Agency.
Arctic Astronautics, which normally focuses on tiny educational satellite kits for schools, builds Woodsat. A Finnish company, UPM Plywood, provides high-quality wood for the craft and covers the launch cost.
Nyman and his business partner on the project, the company's chief science officer Jari Mäkinen, describe the Woodsat project as part of their core mission -- to teach about space.
They estimate the total project cost at $120,000, but they haven't actually kept track because they acknowledge the project is partly just good advertising for Arctic Astronautics.
"Our aim is to sell these satellites to research groups and other interested parties who want to launch a payload, but don't want to make the satellite themselves. The use of wood would be optional -- using plywood or traditional materials won't make any difference in this kind of small satellite in price," Mäkinen said.
He said the retail cost for one satellite, after development and the first launch, could be about $35,000.
The ESA will provide testing of the satellite and instruments that go inside the tiny spacecraft -- a cube that measures only about 4 inches across. Another Finnish company, Huld, has provided an extension arm with a camera so Woodsat can take photos of itself in space.
"Our company's goal is to teach students about chemistry, space, materials and science, so this has been a great project for us, and so many have joined us to support this," Nyman said.
The company tested a version of Woodsat on June 12 by sending it 20 miles high above the Finnish city Mäntsälä, north of Helsinki, under a stratospheric balloon.
The small satellite, or CubeSat, performed exactly as expected and even recorded video of itself just as atmospheric pressure changes caused the balloon to explode. It descended under a parachute to land on top of a tall spruce tree about 20 miles north of the launch site, Nyman said.
The wood is coated with a substance to help it withstand bombardment by atomic particles in space, Nyman said. The company hopes it will send data back to Earth for up to two years.
ESA was interested in the mission because it often tests the effect of various materials in space, and the agency could see the educational value of Woodsat, Riccardo Rampini, ESA's head of the materials physics and chemistry section, said in an interview.
"We are often dealing with the effects of the space environment on materials and therefore, launching something made out of an uncommon material, I would say ... it is important to take all the right steps from materials and processes perspective and take the opportunity to explore physical and surface chemistry in the form of monitoring emissions, outgassing, etc.," Rampini said.
The total budget for ESA's contributions to Woodsat would be about $180,000, he said.
Woodsat also offers a unique chance to transmit messages around the globe only by bouncing a radio signal off the satellite, Nyman said.
To use that feature, members of the public must have what is known as a LoRa-capable amateur radio operating at a 70-centimeter wavelength.
"We work with this project like start-ups usually work: We don't count hours. We just want to make this happen," Mäkinen said.