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Did you know origami helps NASA scientists with spacecraft designs?

Origami in spacecrafts.
Origami designs at JPL that engineers are using to create folding spacecrafts. Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding and craft, is creativity and ingenuity at its very best. The art of making multiple designs and patterns with the help of a single paper is enthralling. It is as complex as it appears and requires years of practice to attain perfection.

Origami is widely used in art and craft, 3D architecture and teaching mathematics. But it would be quite surprising to know about the use of origami in spacecraft designing.

Complex science in intricate folds

NASA engineers use origami not only because of its aesthetic appeal, but also because of the hidden geometry in the various folds.

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of NASA, origami is providing an answer to a very difficult question – how to pack the spacecraft in the minimum possible volume?

One answer to this is found in Starshade, a folding IRIS design that can block light coming from far away stars. The size of the Starshade would be about 85 feet.

Once the dazzling brightness of star light is dimmed, it would enhance the capability of the space telescope to detect orbiting exoplanets. A futuristic project that would be accompanied with Starshade is Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope that will help in exploration of smaller planets.

Better aerodynamics, less risk.

In order to avert the risk of a meteoric strike that can obscure a telescope’s vision, origami inspired folding pattern would be very useful.

Manan Arya, a JPL technologist who works on Starshade, says that multiple layers of material are used to block starlight and they are separated by gaps so that even if they get hit, there won’t be a line-of sight puncture.

The first part in designing was developing an algorithm for folding and unfolding. The PhD thesis of Arya was titled “Use of Origami in Space Superstructures”

Behold! The motivations and the futuristic designs

Manan was inspired by history of space folding and solar arrays. Along with him, Robert Salazar, another JPL intern, also works on origami designs. Salazar tests folding materials and designs. He also uses Kapton, a special polythene fabric material that is used for spacecraft insulation. Specialty of Kaptan is that permanent creases are not formed in it.

Salazar says “With most origami, the magic comes from the folding,” he goes on to add that “You can’t design purely from geometry. You need to know the qualities of the material to understand how it will fold.”

Starshade is still in its nascent stages but origami in space is the thing of the future and has a lot of uses.

Cubesats, miniature satellites the size of briefcase, would use origami-inspired designs and NASA will launch missions using modular spacecrafts.