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An Ancient Art Goes inTo Space

Thinking about technology in space evokes visions of huge, complex machines. In 1995, origami, the humble Japanese art of paper-folding, played a key role in making space-based solar energy generation feasible.

Sanshey Biswas  30th Aug 2014

aps should be folded in a way that makes them last longer, but the conventional way of folding a map at right angles cause the material to wear. Finding a better way might not have been the most pressing of scientific questions facing humanity, but by solving it in 1995, two Japanese scientists paved the way for a new era in power generation.

Koryo Miura and Masamori Sakamaki, researchers at Tokyo University's Institute of Space and Aeronautical Science, normally work on the problems of packing large flat items, like satellite antennae and solar collectors, into the smallest, most compact shapes with a view to deploying them as rapidly and as simply as possible. It's an important component of the process for capturing solar energy in space — the larger the number of solar panels you can launch into space in one mission, the more cost-effective, and therefore more feasible, the technology would get.

Miura and Sakamaki came up with a novel folding technique, inspired by origami. By folding the material like a harmonica, a complex paper fan of sorts, and with a slight alteration to the angle (see pic), the duo was able to create a sheet of paper that didn't have a conventional fold but achieved enough flexibility to become compact.The sections formed on the paper are interdependent, forming "peaks" and "valleys". Changing a section's state — from "peak" to "valley" — would affect the neighbours and their neighbours until changing the state of the entire sheet. This leaves room for the sheet to have only two states: open or closed. In 1995 a solar panel with this design was unfolded on the Space Flyer Unit, a Japanese satellite. Despite this test, the technology is still in its early stages.

When he was a high school student on a study program in Japan, Brian Trease would often try out origami techniques he picked up from books on cheeseburger wrappers. Now a mechanical engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calafornia, Trease is working on using this ancient art to create solar panels that can be folded to roughly a tenth of the original dimension. In partnership with researchers at Brigham Young University, origami expert Robert Lang and with the support of NASA's Technology Research Fellowship, various techniques of folding have been used to create an array that folds into a disk 8.9 feet in diameter, but unfolds into a gigantic 82-foot array of solar panels. When being unfolded, the prototype resembles a blooming flower that turns into a flat circular surface with a diameter of 4.1 feet.

The team's efforts weren't restricted simply to trying folds. Considering that origami techniques proceed with the assumption that the material at hand is paper, they faced a challenge trying to implement it on materials that would hold solar panels. While being able to fold into a compact form, the material needs to retain its strength while launching into space after exiting Earth's atmosphere. On reaching the intended destination, it should be easy enough for the solar panel to unfold. Like the original Miura fold, the circular surface designed by the team opens up into a flat surface with only a tug at the edges — this act can be carried out by a machine, unlike with solar panels in the past that required manual setup with human expertise. Trease sees the technology's potential on small satellites called CubeSats. He even foresees the techniques being applied to make foldable antennae and other applications that require radial deployment.

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