According to the latest figures from ESA’s Space Debris Office (SDO), there are around 6,900 artificial satellites in orbit. Thanks to the many telecommunications, internet and small satellites that are expected to be launched, the situation is set to become exponentially overcrowded in the years to come. This creates all sorts of concerns about collision risks and space debris, not to mention environmental concerns.
Because of this, engineers, designers, and satellite manufacturers are looking for ways to redesign their satellites. Enter Max Justice, a cybersecurity expert, former Marine and “cyber farmer” who worked in the space industry for many years. He is currently working on a new type of satellite made from mycelial fibers. This robust, heat-resistant and environmentally friendly material could spark a revolution in the booming satellite industry.
Right now, one of the biggest problems with satellites is the risk of collision that they pose when they stop working. By the time their orbit breaks up and burns up in the atmosphere, satellites are likely to collide with each other, producing small pieces of space debris. To mitigate this and prevent the exponential increase in debris in orbit (also known as Kessler syndrome), satellite manufacturers are investigating ways to desorb it faster.
However, this overlooks another danger, namely the way satellites re-entering our atmosphere leave traces of aluminum particles and other toxic residues behind. These particles float in the upper atmosphere for many years and could be another source of environmental problems. Max Justice believes the mycelial fungus could address both of these dangers in the manufacture of satellite enclosures.
Basically, mycelium fibers are a protein-rich, multicellular material that is extracted from the root structure of fungi that grow into macrostructures – the best known are fungi. As these structures grow, the mycelia release enzymes that convert sugar or plant waste into usable nutrients, allowing them to form extensive networks in any substrate they ingest – usually the soil.
When dried, mycelium fibers are light, extremely tough and have a tensile strength comparable to that of silk. For this reason, mycelium is one of many organic fibers that are being studied for building materials and manufacturing. For example, several designers are studying mycelium as an inexpensive, durable, and non-toxic means of building environmentally friendly enclosures, insulation, and plastics.
Examples of this are the architecture and design firms Evocative and The Living, which have been using mycelium for years to make materials and finished products. In the construction industry, mycelium has also been shown to have uses in removing harmful chemicals in construction waste. In combination with 3D printing, mycelium can also be used to make chairs and other pieces of furniture.
Other uses include “mushroom paper”, surfboards, “mushroom leather”, “mushroom shoes”, bacon and even coffins that turn human remains into compost. When actor Luke Perry passed away in 2019, his daughter stated that he was buried in a “mushroom suit”. As Justice Universe Today announced via email, this natural fiber occupies an important place in the revolution that is currently taking place in manufacturing and materials:
“People are realizing every day how mushrooms (especially mycelium) can be used as a substitute for bacon (as well as pork, cow and chicken), leather (and they find it stronger), shoes, hats and clothing than building / building materials like bricks , Soundproofing, fire-retardant insulation as well as packaging materials, furniture, threaded bolts, handbags, pet food, the sky is the limit. There are even several mycologists and other scientists working with mycelium to eat oil and plastic. It’s pretty amazing. “
But what about commercial real estate, another industry that is undergoing a seismic shift in terms of purpose and practices? This is ultimately where judicial efforts are directed, inspired by research currently being carried out by Sumitomo Forestry and Kyoto University in Japan. Under the direction of Takao Doi, a former JAXA astronaut and professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Kyoto, the first “wooden satellites” are to be built in this collaboration.
The idea is to use layers of cellulose fiber (also known as wood) that are very resistant to temperature changes and direct sunlight. “We are very concerned that any satellites that re-enter the earth’s atmosphere are on fire, creating tiny alumina particles that will float in the upper atmosphere for many years,” Doi said in a recent interview with the BBC. “Ultimately, it will affect the earth’s environment.”
But as Justice has suggested, not only is mycelium a stronger and more flexible material than wood, it is also much more renewable and sustainable as a resource. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as he explained:
“Depending on the type of mycelium used, it can be more flexible than wood and / or stronger than wood, it is lighter than wood and of course much more fire retardant. I even took a propane torch to one of my mycelial blocks for over 5 minutes and all it did was smoke.
“Mycelium is very light, floats naturally on water, can withstand the cold of space where we don’t have to worry about cold welding, and we can add fine metal pieces that are used to transfer almost any kind of material Signal. As you can see, there are numerous reasons why mycelium on its way into space is well suited for our satellites in space, on land and in the air.
Of course, there is also the all-important problem of space debris, which will pose a serious threat to satellites and spacecraft in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in the years to come. According to the BNE, since the launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957 (Sputnik 1) there have been more than 560 breakups, explosions, collisions or anomalous events leading to fragmentation. With the proliferation of small satellites and the mega-constellations that are deployed (or will be deployed soon), the risk of collision increases significantly.
This could lead to a phenomenon known as “Kessler Syndrome,” where collisions and breakups lead to more collisions and more, and so on. For decades, space agencies and astronomers have feared this prospect and are looking for mitigation measures to prevent and dispose of “space debris”. As Justice has indicated, materials like mycelial fiber would represent a production cut at the end of production.
Why waste reduction is necessary. Photo credit: ESA
“Well, space debris is space debris,” he said. “And if you fly around 26,875 km, it can still ruin someone’s day. Because mycelium has such strong bonds and is considered by some to be fireproof, it will take a lot of energy in space to break it apart, which is actually a good thing because it’s the little pieces of space junk that make the real killer. ”
Given the benefits and the way mycelium has caught on in various industries, one must wonder why the aerospace sector is lagging behind in adopting this material. While there are a few examples – for example, Mars City Design (MCD) is studying the use of mycelium to create habitats for Mars – there are currently no similar efforts to develop mycelial satellites.
As it stands, Justice describes himself as “an army of one when it comes to making mycelium-based satellites”. Known as Setas Mushrooms (in Falling Waters, West Virginia), the operation specializes in growing and supplying fresh, fully organic mushrooms. In addition, they grow and produce blocks of mycelium weighing 0.45, 2.25, and 4.5 kg (1, 5, and 10 lbs), which typically take less than 2 months to make, and which are in any desired shape can be brought. Said justice:
“I worked in the space industry (mostly with the NGO [Natiopnal Reconnaissance Office], NGA [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency]and NASA) for over 15 years and no one else is doing this or talking about it. By the time they meet me, people are overwhelmed with the use of mycelium. I would love to see NASA, other government agencies or the private sector like SpaceX, Bigelow, ISISpace, Visioneering or many others interested in this inexpensive, lightweight, fire retardant and highly sustainable product. “
Artist’s impression of the orbital debris problem. Image credit: UC3M
There are currently around 4,000 functioning satellites in orbit, with new ones being added all the time. SpaceX began launching batches of its Starlink broadband internet satellites in May 2019, starting with batches of 60 a few times a month. Since March 2021 there has been an average of 300 per month and now have a constellation of 1,443 satellites – with plans for a mega-constellation of 12,000.
The multinational e-commerce giant Amazon now has its own plans for a constellation of 3,236 broadband satellites. Since 2012, Viasat and Hughes (a subsidiary of EchoStar) have also been offering broadband Internet services through their telecommunications satellite constellations. With internet access expected to reach 8.73 billion people worldwide (that’s 90% of the world’s population) by 2050, the sector has seen significant growth (no play on words!)!
Further reading: Seta’s mushrooms