The European Space Agency (ESA) is taking an unusual approach for its new satellites: replacing resistant carbon fibers with a more natural version made from the flax plant.
A natural fiber that once wrapped the Egyptian mummy and was worn by Roman aristocrats found a purpose in the space age. Threading flax fibers through the satellite panel material can help space missions burn faster during atmospheric re-entry – making their removal safer for humans and properties on the ground.
If it sounds like it could make these satellites a little thinner, well, that’s the idea. ESA is trying to facilitate the destruction and incineration of satellites as they re-enter the atmosphere to retreat, according to a Press release at ESA. It’s all part of an attempt to make not only satellites safer for us, but also to produce less carbon.
It sounds counterintuitive, but ESA scientists found that panels made of flax fibers were still strong enough to withstand space flight and withstand cosmic radiation. It has even improved the ability of satellites to send the first radio transmissions, as they impede signals less than steel-like carbon fibers.
“These panels are designed to be targeted at the satellite, intended to break early to allow heat fluxes inside the satellite sooner than otherwise,” said Tommaso Ghidini, head of ESA’s Structures, Mechanisms and Materials Division.
ESA says the fiber will make satellite production a much cleaner industry. Fiber-soaked satellites are expected to have only 25% of the carbon dioxide emissions of a conventional one during their lifetime.
The team conducted tests to incinerate the satellite’s components in a laboratory using a plasma wind tunnel, but so far ESA has not yet tested a fully assembled satellite. According to the statement, this could happen soon.