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Some examples of origami designs at JPL. Engineers are exploring this ancient art form to create folding spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Origami has once again inspired engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Besides aesthetic beauty, the Japanese tradition of paper-folding addresses a persistent problem faced by JPL engineers: how do you pack the greatest amount of spacecraft into the smallest volume possible?

One answer might be found in the Starshade, an immense, folding iris that has been proposed as a way to block light from distant stars. It would unfurl to a diameter of about 85 feet (26 meters) in space, about the size of a standard baseball diamond. Dampening the brightness of a star’s light would extend the capability of a space telescope to detect orbiting exoplanets.

Something that big is more at risk of micrometeorite strikes; any punctures could mean light getting through and obscuring a telescope’s vision. That’s why JPL turned to an origami-inspired folding pattern, said Manan Arya, a technologist working on Starshade.

The key was developing algorithms that allow the Starshade to fold smoothly, predictably, and repeatedly. “A huge part of my job is looking at something on paper and asking, can we fly this?” Arya said. He could be considered Starshade’s “origamist in chief.” His PhD thesis looked at the use of origami in space superstructures.

Robert Salazar, a JPL intern who helped design the Starshade folding pattern, now works on an experimental concept called Transformers for Lunar Extreme Environments. JPL senior research scientist Adrian Stoica leads the project, which would use unfolding, reflective mirrors to bounce the Sun’s rays into deep craters on Earth’s moon. Once deployed, this solar energy could melt water ice or power machinery.

Salazar tests folding designs and materials in a work area littered with scraps, mostly from paper. He also folds Kapton, a tinsel-like material used as spacecraft insulation, and a special polyethylene fabric that doesn’t form permanent creases.

“With most origami, the magic comes from the folding,” Salazar said. “You can’t design purely from geometry. You need to know the qualities of the material to understand how it will fold.” He said the use of origami in engineering is relatively new and is spurring the publication of technical papers on folding patterns.

“There are so many patterns to still be explored,” Salazar said. “Most designs are for shapes that fold flat. Non-flat structures, like spheres or paraboloids, largely haven’t been done.”

Starshade and the Transformers project are still in their early stages. But Arya points out that we could see space origami very soon. CubeSats are one promising application: these miniaturized satellites are the size of a briefcase, and NASA will launch several key missions using these modular spacecraft in coming years. Because they require so little space, mass and cost, they’re easier to launch. But CubeSats are limited in what they can do without folding structures, which can pack antennas and other equipment into them. “That’s an area where I see origami having an increasing role,” Arya said.

Another is robotics. A JPL robot called PUFFER was inspired by origami. Its collapsible body is made from a folding circuit board embedded with fabric. When in use, it pops-up and can climb over rocks or squeeze down under ledges.

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