Tech-Trivia : Did You Know? This Week in History …

‘Wireless World’

This week, on June 28th 1965, ‘Early Bird’ (Intelsat I) was activated. It wasn’t just another satellite; it was the first commercial communications satellite to be nestled in a geosynchronous orbit. This is where it ‘parked’  at 22,236 miles above the equator in the line of the earth’s rotation, appearing stationary to observers on the ground.

This is often referred to as the ‘Clarke Orbit’ after the sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke who popularised the concept. Before becoming a full-time writer, he was a radar specialist during World War II and in a paper published in “Wireless World” in 1945, he proposed the idea of a global communications network based on geostationary satellites, providing a consistent and uninterrupted communication service. However, most people know him for the science-fiction novel and film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.

Intelsat was founded in 1964 as an intergovernmental organisation (IGO) called the International Telecommunications Satellite Organisation, with 149 nations originally participating. In 2001, it became a private company and now has one of the world’s most expansive satellite networks, providing video and broadband services to over 200 countries and territories around the world. Their network broadcasted the Apollo moon landing in 1969 to millions of viewers around the world.

More recently, we have Starlink, the project initiated by SpaceX, the private space exploration company founded by Elon Musk. It’s developing a satellite network with up to 12,000 orbiting satellites to provide high-speed internet access across the globe, even in remote and rural areas or warzones (e.g. Ukraine). Starlink satellites are in ‘low’ earth orbit (340 miles), meaning they’re much closer to the ground than traditional communication satellites, allowing for lower latency and faster speeds, especially as their satellites use lasers to communicate with each other, enabling them to transfer data much faster than traditional satellite internet, for example, a Starlink user can expect download speeds of up to 100 megabits per second, compared to download speeds of around 10 megabits per second for a user with traditional satellite internet.

Next time you look up at the night sky, perhaps you might spare a thought for all those satellites up there and how far we’ve come since Arthur C. Clarke penned his visionary paper in 1945.

Sustainability : Wood-Based Satellites That Stop Atmospheric Pollution

Japan’s Kyoto University working with Nasa and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) plan to launch wood rather than metal-based satellites into orbit from next year.


As part of the LignoSat Space Wood Project, which began in April 2020, as a collaboration between Kyoto University and Sumitomo Forestry, wood specimens have been tested with exposure in space at the International Space Station (the ISS) with a view to making the wood-based LignoSat satellite. Magnolia wood (“Hoonoki” in Japanese) will form the basis of the satellite because of its high workability, dimensional stability, and strength.

Why A Wooden Satellite?

The reasons for using wood for satellites are:

– Wood can withstand the huge temperature fluctuations and stand up to cosmic rays, dangerous solar particles, and more without decomposition or deformations. This means that wood, an abundant sustainable and natural material (no expensive development costs) appears to be a suitable material for use in low earth orbit.

– When wood-base satellites fall back to Earth, they will burn up completely in the upper atmosphere with no harmful byproducts, thereby reducing the risk of atmospheric pollution and pollution of the earth below. Wood may be better, for example, than the aluminium that is currently used which releases alumina particles on burn-up, polluting the atmosphere and reflecting sunlight in a way that can contribute to abnormal weather.

– It’s easier for radio waves to penetrate dried timber, thereby allowing the LignoSat team to put communication antennas and sensor technology directly into the body of the satellite.

– A wooden satellite that burns up completely will not contribute to the already significant space junk problem. For example, European Space Agency figures show that there are nearly 34,000 large pieces of debris, nearly 2,800 defunct satellites, and millions of pieces of space junk/trash currently circling Earth’s orbit posing a safety risk to astronauts and the viability of active satellites.

Spin-Off Benefits 

One anticipated spin-off of the satellite project is that Japanese logging firm Sumitomo, one of the partners in the project, may use insights gained from the satellite to help it develop materials for what could be the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper in Tokyo by 2041.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

With most of us concerned about what’s happening on earth and to its atmosphere, satellites may not be our first thought when it comes to making changes to protect the atmosphere and the environment. There is also the not so small matter of the pollution and carbon released by using fossil fuels to blast satellite into orbit in the first place. That said, the project does show that there’s no good reason why wood wouldn’t be a good material for use in a satellite, and the fact that its natural and sustainable, safer and less polluting on burnup, and can make for a better design in terms of radio waves appear to make it a better alternative to aluminium (which also has to be mined). It seems that the testing of wood as part of the project could have other valuable environmental beneficial spin-offs such as creating high-functioning wood materials for new applications and materials for a wooden (rather than concrete) skyscraper.