Spacecraft Origami: From Paper to Panel Folding

Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Origami, the Japanese tradition of paper folding, is not limited to creating beautiful designs as pure art. While styles of origami can be incredibly diverse, origami is rooted in mathematical principles that make it applicable to science and industry. The ability to fold large two-dimensional structures into complex, yet compact three-dimensional shapes is valuable to space sciences. Objects such as panel arrays on satellites must be compact when launched but then open up to form large, flat surfaces. Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are developing an origami “starshade” for use on space telescopes. Starlight can prevent space telescopes from imaging the low-intensity light reflected off of exoplanets, similar to the way light pollution on Earth can obscure what we observe in space. The origami starshade’s design looks like a flower unfurling and would be used to block starlight from space telescopes seeking to discover new exoplanets by direct imaging.

The degree of mathematical complexity and sophistication possible in origami-based folding is thought to have significant potential for applications in space technology. JoAnna Fulton and Hanspeter Schaub at the University of Colorado, Boulder, developed an algorithm to describe the dynamics of origami folding based on approaches used for robotic manipulator systems. They focused on origami designs with repeatable folding patterns that can be scaled to different sizes and considered the mechanism that would unfold the structure. Their calculations concluded that the balance between the physical constraints of the system and the stability of their calculations requires additional studies of paper-folding dynamics. If they successfully stabilize their algorithm, it will be computationally more efficient than current calculation methodologies, enabling engineers to design even more sophisticated origami-folded spacecraft with greater capabilities for scientific exploration. READ MORE