Researchers say origami could be useful one day in deploying space solar power.
As a young student at a study program in Japan, Brian Trease would fold wrappers from fast-food cheeseburgers into cranes. He loved discovering different origami techniques in library books.
Today, Trease, a mechanical engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, thinks about how the principles of origami could be used for space-bound devices.
"This is a unique crossover of art and culture and technology," he said.
Trease partnered with researchers at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, to pursue the idea that spacecraft components could be built effectively by implementing origami folds.
Researchers say origami could be useful one day in deploying space solar power. Imagine an orbiting power plant that beams power down to Earth using microwaves. Sending the solar arrays up to space would be easy, Trease said, because they could all be folded and packed into a single rocket launch, with "no astronaut assembly required."
Doctoral student Shannon Zirbel is shown above unfolding a solar panel array.
One technique that has been used for an origami-inspired solar array is called a Miura fold, invented by Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura. Miura intended this fold for solar arrays, and, 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. But now, with an emphasis on small satellites and large structures, Trease says arrays inspired by this fold could see renewed usefulness.
For more on the research, see this NASA press release.