In origami, it takes around 15 to 18 folds to create an aquatic jumping frog, or a soaring crane to grant our wishes. Yet to continue our journey beyond the skies and into outer space, how many folds does it take to make a spaceship or a satellite?
Akira Yoshizawa is considered the father of modern origami thanks to his creation of a standardised folding notation—and his focus on geometry—that made possible the evolution of paper folding into high art. In the past few decades, origami has moved beyond traditional frogs and cranes into all kinds of terrestrial and airborne creatures, with some works using hundreds of folds to create life-like models of creeping crocodiles or fluttering bats.
Inspired by Yoshizawa, a new generation of folding aficionados is now combining mathematics, physics, and even quantum mechanics to utilize this traditional art in cutting-edge research. After conquering the flora and fauna of Earth, it’s somehow natural that origami’s next step would be into space.
Physicist Robert Lang is another one of orgami’s great masters. Introduced to the craft when he was six years old, in his teenage years he moved on to develop his own origami designs, and he then continued to fold alongside his day jobs as an engineer and researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and SDL, Inc.
Lang and other artists discovered in the 1990s how mathematics could be utilised to uncover the underlying laws of origami, which are then combined with algorithms to allow them to design highly-complex folding patterns. These patterns could be used to create intricate and life-like animal creations in the hands of a skilled paper sculptor, or innovative structures with wide-ranging applications in the hands of an engineer.
“Once we have studied and understood the way paper folds and unfolds, we can apply those patterns to things that are very different from paper,” Lang told Great Big Story. “Whenever an engineer creates something that opens and closes in a controlled way, they can make use of origami.”
The principles and techniques behind origami are today used by NASA and other space agencies to help formulate solutions to a myriad of logistic and engineering conundrums. For instance, rockets that deliver equipment from Earth into space are too small and narrow to carry full-sized solar arrays, shielding, and other structures that could stretch as wide as four city buses when in orbit. Origami offers is a space-saving technique for interstellar shipping that would awe even Marie Kondo.
Japanese space origami
One of the first applications of origami in space was the Space Flyer Unit, launched by the former National Space Development Agency of Japan in 1995. The satellite was powered by an array of solar panels that fold up compactly using a type of fold called the miura-ori, originally developed by astrophysicist Koryo Miura in 1985.
The miura-ori is particularly useful because it packs tightly, yet can be easily unfolded and re-folded in a single motion by pulling or pushing on opposite ends. The simplicity of this shape helps reduce the amount of motors required to operate the equipment on a satellite or spacecraft.
In 2010 the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency also successfully launched and tested the experimental spacecraft IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun), which uses a solar sail to traverse interstellar distances. The 20-metre wide sail is less than 10 micrometres thick, and was packed up for launch using an origami-based circumferential folding pattern. The origami sail was a success, propelling IKAROS from Earth to within 80,000 kilometres of Venus.
NASA space origami
Lang has lent his origami know-how to NASA for the Starshade project. The Starshade is a 26-meter disc that can be deployed by a space-based telescope to block surrounding starlight and make it easier for the telescope to observe exoplanets without light interference. Lang worked together with researchers to develop a special crease pattern that could fold and unfold the shade reliably, maintain structural integrity, and pack up tightly enough to fit in a rocket. The result is elegant and beautiful.
Similarly elegant is a solar array being developed by Brigham Young University together with NASA. The team has designed a web of solar panels that stretches 25 metres and can generate 150 kilowatts of power (compared to the 84 generated by the International Space Station’s eight solar arrays), yet can also fold up to be just 2.7 metres in diameter. A smaller version has also been devised for use on CubeSats—miniature satellites often deployed for research purposes by universities, private companies, and other agencies.
In 2017, NASA also launched a crowdsourcing challenge, asking avid folders around the world to submit their best designs to pack and deploy radiation shielding for a vehicle that may someday carry humans on Mars.
Another benefit for engineering is how origami folds let a structure change its shape, allowing for repeated modulation to suit different environments.
At the 2018 European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) here in Berlin, a prototype for an origami-based structure designed for flexible usage on the moon or other planets was presented by the EuroMoonMars project. The structure is formed of textiles, which could in the future be embedded with solar panels that can generate energy throughout the day by changing angles as the sun moves.
NASA is also working on the design of a new radiator that can change shape to control heat loss, protecting sensitive electronic equipment from temperature changes. It is made of a thin, temperature-sensitive material folded intricately into an accordion-like shape, with fold cavities that absorb more or less heat depending on how deep or flat they are.
A miniature DIY origami space module
Origami and engineering are like a match made in the stars, but it’s not all work and no play. Many researchers fold paper as a hobby as well, and the art holds a fond place in the hearts of many. This is such that, when the inflatable (though not origami-inspired) Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was launched in 2016, NASA even released a miniature DIY origami version of the technology, called origaBEAMi, to tickle the fingers of space enthusiasts.
The sky-high potential for origami in the sciences is of course just as multi-faceted back here on earth. The principles and designs of folding are being researched and applied in everything from car airbags to heart stents and batteries. Not bad for an ancient craft known famously for a bird that grants wishes.