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'Origami' Solar Panels Introduced to NASA

Aug 14, 2014 04:24 PM EDT
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In what NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is calling a "unique crossover of art and culture and technology," researchers are proposing that the space agency's next generation of solar panels reflect some of the astoundingly efficient principles of origami.

JPL researcher Brian Trease recently teamed up with researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah, to pursue the idea that spacecraft components could be built effectively by implementing origami folds.

Solar panel deployment is the main focus of their work, as the large and often bulky panels currently deploy in a very ponderous manner even on the most modern of space-craft.

Trease suggested in a recent release that with advancements in solar paneling material, more complex folding is now possible. If the technology was specially designed to facilitate certain origami folds, entire panel arrays could be sent up into space in one trip with "no astronaut assembly required."

"You think of it as ancient art, but people are still inventing new things, enabled by mathematical tools," he said.

Just last year Trease and BYU researcher Shannon Zirbel collaborated with origami expert Robert Lang and BYU professor Larry Howell to develop a solar array that stretches 82 feet across. However, in a remarkable display of folding technique, the entire array can fold into one piece under 9 feet in diameter.

Trease is especially excited about the potential of what is called a Miura fold. Tested first on a small Japanese satellite called the Space Flyer Unit in 1995, the Miura fold has found renewed usefulness. In this modern age, there is an emphasis on smaller and smaller satellite units (such as the CubeSat) even while solar panel surface area needs to be a large as ever.

"The fact that we're going both bigger and smaller may open up domains where it may be relevant again," Trease said.

You can watch Trease and his team unfold one of their designs again and again and again in the video below.

Origami Solar Array Prototype from JPLraw on Vimeo. (Raw footage courtesy of BYU)

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