To Make A Spacecraft That Folds And Unfolds, Try Origami

Jul 17, 2014
Originally published on July 17, 2014 8:40 pm

Scientists and engineers at NASA are using origami techniques to help solve a fundamental dilemma facing spacecraft designers: How do you take a big object, pack it into a small container for rocket launch, and then unpack it again once it arrives in space — making sure nothing breaks in the process.

Brian Trease, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says one way is to use something called the Miura fold, named for its inventor, Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura.

As an example, Trease folds up a sheet of paper using the Miura fold. (Grab a sheet of paper and you can follow along, step-by-step, here or in this youtube video.)

The folded sheet looks a bit like the folded maps you can buy at gas stations. But instead of multiple steps to unfold it, all you need to do is grasp the corners of the paper and pull. It's simple — and simplicity is key when designing a spacecraft.

"If I was deploying [a solar panel] in space," Trease says, "I would only need one motor to do that deployment. That's the beauty of the design."

And the usefulness of origami in space exploration doesn't end with solar panels.

For example, we can now print things like electronic circuits, solar cells and displays directly onto sheets of paper, Trease says, and scientists are devising ways take these sheets and fold them up into into useful instruments — such as seismometers or atmospheric detectors.

"What really excites me is the idea of just sending the entire printer up into orbit," Trease says. Then if you needed a different sensor, he explains, you could just upload the design and print out a new one in space.

"There are folks here," he says, "interested in what we call printable spacecraft."

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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


I'm Robert Siegel. And now it's time for more Unfolding Science.


SIEGEL: Yes, that sound means we're going to hear a story from NPR science correspondent Joe Palca about how things fold and unfold in science. Today, Joe tells us about an ancient folding technique. It's being applied to the most modern of scientific endeavors, exploring space.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Let's say you're a spacecraft designer, and you want to carry a giant solar panel into space. In order to fit it into your rocket, you need to fold it up. Now, you could fold it in half and then in half again and then in half again. But once in space, you'd have to reverse the process, unfolding one fold, then another, then another. Or you could use the ancient art of origami to help you out.

BRIAN TREASE: I have a demo right here, actually.

PALCA: Brian Trease is an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The demo is just a sheet of typing paper, folded over and over so it's about the size of a large matchbook. Trease made it using a newly created origami fold named for its inventor, Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura. And it's the way the sheet unfolds that's remarkable. Trease grasps the top and bottom of the matchbook and pulls. And in one motion it opens to a flat sheet again - simple. And simplicity is key when you're designing spacecraft.

TREASE: If I was deploying this in space, I would only need one motor to do that deployment.

PALCA: It's cool because it looks like - it looks like - when you see it sitting there, it looks like you'd have to unfold it in several steps. And the idea that you can just pull it apart and have it fully open is pretty amazing.

TREASE: So that's the beauty of the design.

PALCA: And this isn't the only way origami might help spacecraft designers. For example, Trease says there are now printers that can print things like electronic circuits and computer memory directly onto a sheet of paper.

TREASE: They say, wow, I can print all that on a sheet of paper. That's almost all the systems you need for a spacecraft. So there's folks here interested in what we call printable spacecraft.

PALCA: Printable spacecraft.

TREASE: Printable spacecraft.

PALCA: You'd print the electronic stuff on a flat sheet, and use origami folding to turn it into some useful shape - probably not a swan, but maybe a soccer ball that could roll around on another planet. And to land these printable spacecrafts, all you need to do is shove them out the door of a probe orbiting overhead.

TREASE: We call these flutter landers. And they just fall to the surface. And then, once they're down, then they could assemble into their shapes or do their science - something like that.

PALCA: That sounds so wild. But that's what happens when you start unfolding science. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.