Origami may be the space-saving answer NASA is looking for

Origami, the Japanese tradition of paper folding may address a consistent challenge for the engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. How do you pack a significant amount of spacecraft into a tight place?

The ancient art is key to the design of NASA’s Starshade, and now origami is being explored by NASA for other projects.

What is Starshade?

NASA Origami Jet Propulsion Lab Sunshade
Initially folded up for launch into space (1), the starshade would detach and unfurl (2) and then fly away (3) to its station tens of thousands of kilometers ahead of the telescope. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-CALTECH
Starshade is a NASA concept which is designed to block bright starlight from obstructing the view of sophisticated telescopes. Essentially, Starshade is an external folding iris, that allows telescopes to see planets without being washed out by starlight.

Fully functioning, Starshade can spread out to an 85-foot diameter. That’s about the size of a baseball diamond.

But flying a baseball diamond sized object into space is a challenge, so engineers are using origami as a way to shrink the large spacecraft for transportation.

One Shirt = One Tree
Plant a Seed

While Starshade is still just in the concept stages, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is actively exploring origami for other projects as well.

The Brains Behind the Project

“A huge part of my job is looking at something on paper and asking, ‘Can we fly this?'” said Manan Arya, a technologist working on Starshade.

Arya’s Ph.D. thesis looked into the use of origami in space structure.

“Once I realized this is how you fold spacecraft structures, I became interested in origami,” Arya said. “I realized I was good at it and enjoyed it. Now I fold constantly.”

The Starshade project still has a long way to go, but Arya believes we could see space origami very soon.

CubeSats are one promising application. CubeSats are briefcase-sized satellites that will likely require a collapsible antenna.

flightsystem
Rendering of the RainCube flight system with solar panels and radar antenna deployed. Credit: NASA JPL
One CubeSat is scheduled for launch in 2018

“That’s an area where I see origami having an increasing role,” Arya said.

The JPL engineers are also working on a robot called PUFFER. PUFFER’s collapsible body is made from a folding circuit board embedded with fabric. When in use, it pops-up and can climb over rocks or squeeze down under ledges.

You can see a video of PUFFER concept below.

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You can transform an Oru Kayak in about 15 minutes
The origami concept does not stop with NASA. A few years ago, Oru developed their version of an origami-inspired Kayak. The Kayak is remarkably durable and convenient. Click here to read my review about the Oru Kayak.

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