Origami in Space
An ancient art form is beginning to take off in a way no one thought possible: on a spaceship.
Origami, or Japanese folding paper, is currently being developed into solar panels at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at The California Institute of Technology. Solar panels that have endless applications.
Space travel has already turned over the possibility of solar-powered flight via folding panels, but this particular reincarnation is different. Developers cite a more intricate fold that allows for efficient deployment of the solar arrays. And it doesn't stop there. Origami may one day be used in self-assembling solar arrays that are launched into space to power the earth below.
However, an idea as intricate as this began in the folds of a young man's imagination. At a high school program in Japan, Brian Trease would daydream about the art of origami, sculpting masterpieces from cheeseburger wrappers. Now he works for NASA as a mechanical engineer, but he has not forgotten his creative side.
"This is a unique crossover of art and culture and technology," he said. "You think of it as ancient art, but people are still inventing new things, enabled by mathematical tools."
The only difference is the material. Though solar panels are made of a material bulkier than paper, strides have been made to make the folds work. In particular, an origami-inspired solar array launched in 1995 on the Space Flyer Unit, A Japanese satellite. The fold — named Miura fold after its astrophysicist inventor Koryo Miura — resembles a checkerboard of parallelograms when opened. The Miura fold requires minimal effort to open.
Trease, on the other hand, remains inventive. His prototype differs from the Miura fold by combining a number of folds that look like a blooming flower.
In association with origami expert Robert Lang and Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, Trease designed a solar array that folds up to be 8.9 feet (2.7 meters) in diameter. Unfolded, it rests a total of 82 feet (25 meters) across. Their 1/20th-scale prototype expands to a diameter of 4.1 feet (1.25 meters).
Many challenges remain in the path of Trease et al., but the beauty of the technology is the fact that its success depends on the creativity of the mind.
Click here for a visual of the origami-inspired prototype.
Origami sun image via Shutterstock.
Continue reading at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.