Without obstacles like clouds or nighttime, solar panels are ideally suited for space and eventually might even be able to efficiently beam power back to Earth. But actually getting solar panels into space isn’t easy. If the panels are too small, they can’t provide much power, but larger panels take up too much room on spacecraft, making transportation expensive.
One idea to meet this challenge? Origami. By working with complex origami folds, researchers at Brigham Young University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed a solar array that can shrink down to a size that’s nearly 10 times smaller. Folded up, the device is 8.9-feet across and can easily wrap around a spacecraft. Once it reaches space, the array would pop open to become 82 feet wide.
“We’re dealing with big, large, flat, thin structures,” says Brian Trease, a mechanical engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Origami was one of the first things that came to mind.”
It’s not the first time that origami has been used in space equipment design; Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura created a prototype for another folding solar panel in the 1990s. “For various reasons that project never went on, but we’re now entering a new age of applications that make origami an interesting prospect again,” says Trease.
The team worked with Robert Lang, a world-renowned origami expert who also happens to be a mathematician and engineer and once worked at JPL himself. “He was trained as a physicist, used to work at JPL, and then got tired of the formal bureaucracy and left to start folding paper,” explains Trease. “Now he’s a world expert.”
“We see value in going directly to any artist, even if they don’t have his credentials, because they have the thousands of hours or folding and tinkering to realize what can and can’t be done,” adds Trease. “Anytime you can bring in other disciplines, they just visualize things differently and bring in different solutions to your problems.”
The new solar panels could be used to power spacecraft and potentially also on orbiting power stations that could wirelessly send energy to Earth via microwaves. A similar design could also be used on Earth to provide new options for portable solar power in remote locations.
“The Department of Defense has already contacted us about doing something for soldiers in the field,” says Trease. “Soldiers right now might carry around 100 pounds, 15 of those pounds are batteries and fuel. If you can eliminate that, you’ve dramatically reduced their load.”
The same type of design might also be used in architecture or product design because of its unusual looks and function. “It’s different from opening an umbrella, because it can accommodate rigid material,” Trease explains. “You could do something like a deployable glass chandelier or a table. When it’s deployed, it looks like a flower blooming–it’s got a nice aesthetic to it.”
In the next few weeks, Trease will also meet with other experts to consider different potential applications for space equipment, like antennas and reflectors, that could also deploy using origami.