Going Where No Origami Has Gone Before

In a challenge that sounds a little like trying to squeeze a week’s worth of clothing into a permissible carry-on bag, researchers at BYU have taken on the task of fitting larger, more powerful solar arrays onto rockets. Their solution: origami.

“It’s expensive and difficult to get things into space; you’re very constrained in space,” Brigham Young University mechanical engineering professor and research team leader Larry Howell says. “With origami you can make it compact for launch and then as you get into space it can deploy and be large.”

The BYU team has come up with a one-twentieth scale prototype for a 25-meter array system that would wrap around a spacecraft. The spacecraft would be carried to space in a rocket. Once the craft was released, the array would unfold. Like this:




origami array

Screen grabs from BYU News video

What we’re talking about here are compliant mechanisms – devices that “get their motion from things like bending, deflection instead of hinges and bearings,” as Howell puts it.

Origami is all of that, and to help gain insight into how the traditional Japanese paper-folding art might be used, the BYU researchers collaborated with a master, Robert J. Lang, who worked as a physicist and engineer before turning to origami full-time.

“Taking this art, this ancient art, and combining it with engineering, we’ve been able to discover new things and new motions that wouldn’t otherwise be possible,” Howell says.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.