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Traditional art form used in future space applications

30 September 2017

The art of paper-folding, origami, has inspired a number of unique spacecraft designs at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Some examples of origami designs at JPL. Engineers are exploring this ancient art form to create folding spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Using the ancient art of paper folding has allowed JPL engineers to address a simple problem – how to pack a large spacecraft into a small volume.

One answer could be found in Starshade, an immense, folding iris that is designed to block light from distant stars. This would extend the capability of a space telescope to detect orbiting exoplanets. Starshade would unfurl to about 85ft (26m) in space, the size of a standard baseball diamond. 

A future project is considering using this design in conjunction with the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which would employ a special coronagraph to image larger planets around other stars. By combining WFIRST with Starshade would mean smaller planets could be detected. 

Something that big is more at risk of micrometeorite strikes; any punctures could mean light getting through and obscuring a telescope's vision. That's why JPL turned to an origami-inspired folding pattern, said Manan Arya, a technologist working on Starshade. 

"We use multiple layers of material to block starlight, separated by some gaps so that, if we do get hit, there's a good chance that there won't be a line-of-sight puncture," Arya said.

The key was developing algorithms that allow the Starshade to fold smoothly, predictably and repeatedly.

"A huge part of my job is looking at something on paper and asking, 'Can we fly this?'" Arya said. He could be considered Starshade's "origamist in chief." His PhD thesis looked at the use of origami in space superstructures.

Robert Salazar, a JPL intern who helped design the Starshade folding pattern, is working on a concept called Transformers for Lunar Extreme Environments. JPL senior research scientist Adrian Stoica leads the project, which would use unfolding, reflecting mirrors to bounce the Sun’s rays into deep craters on Earth’s moon. This solar energy could then melt water ice or power machinery. 

"With most origami, the magic comes from the folding," Salazar said. "You can't design purely from geometry. You need to know the qualities of the material to understand how it will fold."

He said the use of origami in engineering is relatively new and is spurring the publication of technical papers on folding patterns. "There are so many patterns to still be explored," Salazar said. "Most designs are for shapes that fold flat. Non-flat structures, like spheres or paraboloids, largely haven't been done."

Arya believes space origami is gaining momentum. He sees CubeSats as a key application of this method because they are currently limited in what they can do. Robotics is another key area; a JPL robot called PUFFER was inspired by origami. Its collapsible body is made from a folding circuit board embedded with fabric. 

NASA placed an open call in July for origami designs to be used in radiation shielding – a sign that this art form has a place in future space applications.

The original article can be found on NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory website.

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