Getting equipment into space is already expensive as it is; however, the price goes up when you increase the size (a requirement) of the equipment. It costs about $23,400 just to send one kilogram into orbit. That being said, the compartment that we have to send equipment in is quite small and that is exactly why NASA has decided to make use of Origami in order to be able to send larger solar panels into space.
The idea is to make use of these solar panels, ultimately, in the form of an orbiting power plant that is capable of harvesting energy from the sun and then beaming it back to Earth. NASA spent two years researching on this and has succeeded in coming up with a solar array that measures in with a diameter of 2.7 meters when folded and a diameter of 25 meters when unfolded. The design resembles a flower blooming and was coined up by NASA’s mechanical engineer, Brian Trease. Mr Brian collaborated with the researchers at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in pursuing the idea of building a spacecraft by making use of origami folds.
As per Mr Brian, sending the solar panels up into the space is going to be quite easy due to the fact that all of them can be folded, followed by packing them into a single rocket launch that does not require any astronaut. The panels being used in space missions have been incorporating folds already, however, with this approach things are being taken to next level. The structure will look like a checkerboard of parallelograms upon opening and there’s one way to open or close it that is pulling on one corner. The pulling action will result in opening of the structure. In words of Mr Brian; ‘The fact that we’re going both bigger and smaller may open up domains where it may be relevant again.’
Mr Brian has relied on a number of folds to get the job done and his prototype, as mentioned already, looks like a blooming flower that opens up into a large and flat circular surface. He is hopeful that this assembly of panels can be used with small satellites known as CubeSats. On using Origami that was originally designed to be used on paper, Mr Brian says; ‘’You have to rethink a lot of that design in order to accommodate the thickness that starts to accumulate with each bend. You think of it as ancient art, but people are still inventing new things, enabled by mathematical tools.’