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NASA’s Origami Solar Panels


Brian Trease with the origami solar panel NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory researchers engineered solar panels inspired by the Japanese paper folding art, Origami. They are light, foldable and easily deployable.

As far as I remember, a paper girl made out of a chocolate wrapper was my first origami artwork (though I came to know of the name ‘Origami’ only in my late teens). My mother taught me that paper girl when I was in kindergarten. So, what was your first Origami?

Just like us, Brian Trease also got curious about this Japanese paper folding art when he was in Japan, during his years in high school. He would fold wrappers of cheese burgers into cranes and loved to discover various Origami techniques from library books.

But, we wouldn’t talk about him now if he stopped it at fun. He is making a career out of it. Today, Trease is a mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. He thinks about how the principles of the art form he once loved doing for fun could be used for space bound solar panels.

He says “This is a unique crossover of art, culture and technology,”

To materialize the idea of building spacecraft components those are portable to space, NASA is looking at Origami folds. Trease, along with some researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah is working on this project.

Though some simply folded panels are already in use in space missions, Trease and his fellow researchers are aiming at developing more intricately folded Origami solar panels that are light, compact and easily deployable. With this, NASA’s biggest challenge of transporting bulky space objects gets a simple solution — folding them.

“Researchers say Origami could be useful one day in utilizing space solar power for Earth-based purposes. Imagine an orbiting power plant that wirelessly beams power down to Earth using microwaves. Sending the solar arrays up to space would be easy, because they could all be folded and packed into a single rocket launch, with no astronaut assembly required.” JPL release quotes as Trease said.

Shannon Zirbel, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at BYU, is also working on these ideas, with Trease as her research collaborator and being supported by the NASA Technology Research Fellowship. Robert Lang, an Origami expert and Larry Howell, a BYU Professor also collaborated with Trease and Zirbel for this project.

They developed a solar array prototype which is of 1 cm thickness and can fold up to 8.9 feet (2.7 metres) in diametre. When unfolded, the complete structure stretches up to 82 ft. (25 metres) across. This 1/20th scale prototype expands to a deployed diameter of 4.1 ft. (1.25 metres).

The JPL researchers call the material used for these Origami solar panels as Hannaflex. The prototype starts out in a flower shaped form and folds out into a hexagonal shape.

As Trease explains, “different materials needed to be stress tested and they needed to find a way to quickly unfold the panel. The artistic shape of the panel is truly beneficial in the space flight technology. There’s a lot of artistic expertise in understanding the folds, but it’s heavily backed up by math and engineering.”

JPL says in its release “One technique (in a combination of different folds) that has been used for an origami-inspired solar array is called a Miura fold. This well-known origami fold was invented by Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura. When you open the structure, it appears to be divided evenly into a checkerboard of parallelograms. It looks like a blooming flower that expands into a large flat circular surface”

Trease also says “Origami has been the subject of serious mathematical analysis only within the last 40 years. There is growing interest in integrating the concepts of origami with modern technologies.”

He envisions that the foldable solar arrays could be used in conjunction with small satellites called CubeSats. And he says that the origami concept could be used to create  Origami antennas as well.

Zirbel, says in her recent video “Perhaps we could design a machine that had a fifty or hundred year life time (with the power supplied by these large foldable Origami solar panels in space,”

Traditionally Origami reminds us of paper art made out of Washi and other kinds of paper for fun. But the idea of using Origami to solve serious technical issues is all the more fun.

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