How NASA Engineers Use Origami To Design Future Spacecraft

How NASA Engineers Use Origami To Design Future Spacecraft

October 20, 2019 100 By Bernardo Ryan


Origami is the ancient art of Japanese paper
folding. For years it has been used to create stunning works of art. But it has also been
used in maybe more surprising ways, like car airbags, stents and even space exploration. What we want in space are large structures,
not necessarily massive, but large. Which means you can make them out of thin materials,
and whenever you can make them out of thin materials you can use origami to fit them
in these rockets. Many space projects have used the folding
principles of Origami; the solar array wings on the ISS uses a z folding pattern and the
Mars Phoenix lander used a fan-folded solar array, called the UltraFlex. Because the biggest rockets we have right
now are only about 5 meters in diameter, we have to come up with a way of folding up this
very large structure so that we can launch it in a rocket, and once it get to space it
can unfold itself… origami is one the underlying mathematics of how large thin sheets fold
up. One origami project currently in development
at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is The Starshade, which is essentially a big star blocker. Have
you ever tried to take a picture of someone when the bright sun is beating down on them?
Your subject is washed out and you won’t be able to capture any detail. This is the
same problem astronomers have when trying to image exoplanets. Currently astronomers
detect exoplanets indirectly using a shadow technique called the transit method. For an
earth sized exoplanet orbiting a sun like star, they can’t be imaged in detail, because
the stars they circle are much brighter than they are. This is where the Starshade comes
in, to help block that bright light to better help astronomers learn more about these mysterious
planets and look for biosignatures for life. One of the ways in which we’re thinking about
suppressing the starlight is using something called Starshade, which is a very large external
occulter …that blocks out that starlight, so we can see those really faint planets right
next to it. Sounds easy enough, but the Starshade is roughly the size of a baseball diamond.
 Because the Starshade is so huge…we have to come up with a way of folding up this very
large structure into spaces that we can launch it inside a rocket. And once it gets to space,
it can unfold itself. Which is where origami comes in. This is one of the candidate fold
patterns that we had for the inner part of the Starshade, what we call the optical shield.
You can mathematically define how this sheet of paper is folded up, and then by creating
what’s called an isometric map… you can define what the creases have to be on a flat
piece of paper to allow this sheet to fold up in this very particular way. And the way
it unfolds is just like that. And it’s quite remarkable in its simplicity. This giant space
flower may seem simple in design but not in implementation. The Starshade will need to
unfold with millimeter accuracy. Once opened thrusters will move the craft through space,
positioning The Starshade between the star and the space telescope. With the star now
being shaded, the telescope can image the planet in detail to find out whether conditions
for life exist. Origami has been practiced on Earth for  years, and scientists will
continue to draw inspiration from it to help package big space structures more efficiently.
 From solar sails that use sunlight for propulsion, to sun-shades for space telescopes like Gaia,
and the James Webb once it launches in 2019. We can take these ideas from origami and apply
them to spacecraft structures. Because when it comes to the future of space exploration,
if we want to think big we also have to think small. For more science documentaries, check
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