Origami Space Solution: Know When to Fold ‘Em!

December 3rd, 2013

Mechanical engineering PhD student Shannon Zirbel and a team of students work on a solar array prototype that uses origami. Credit: BYU/Brian Wilcox

Origami is a source of inspiration for mechanical engineering students who are working with NASA/JPL, the National Science Foundation, and origami master Robert Lang to design novel mechanisms for use in space and in other applications.

Brigham Young University (BYU) students are focused on space exploration’s greatest — and most ironic — problem: lack of space!

For example, how best to design a solar array that can be tightly compacted for launch and then deployed in space to generate power for space stations or satellites?

Fold, unfold

“With origami you can make it compact for launch and then as you get into space it can deploy and be large,” said BYU professor and research team leader Larry Howell.

Making use of origami principles on rigid silicon solar panels – a material considerably thicker than the paper used for the traditional Japanese art – the BYU-conceived solar array would unfold to nearly 10 times its stored size, according to a BYU news statement.

The solar array can be folded tightly down to a diameter of 2.7 meters and unfolded to its full size of 25 meters across.

Perfect fit for space

The goal of the team effort is to create an array that can produce 250 kilowatts of power. Currently, the International Space Station has eight solar arrays that generate 84 kilowatts of energy.

Howell said origami through compliant mechanisms is a perfect fit for space exploration: It is low cost and the materials can handle harsh solar environments.

Moreover, origami could also be used for antennas, solar sails and even expandable nets used to catch asteroids, Howell added.

Down to Earth ideas

Howell also said the research team is looking beyond space for potential applications in engineering, such as:

— Stents or implants that can be inserted through small incisions before expanding inside the body;

— Phones that can be compact when you’re not using them and then unfold for use;

— Deployable housing or shelters that can be shipped or parachuted compactly and then expanded for emergency use.

Check out this video on the BYU work at:

By Leonard David