How the Ancient Art of Origami Influenced Spacecraft Design

Fagjun | Published 2017-12-03 20:13

NASA is working on a new piece of spacecraft hardware whose design was inspired by the complexity and efficiency of the ancient Japanese art of origami.


Watch this short TED Talk to see how Starshade would work in space.

This is Starshade, a piece of hardware meant for use on space telescopes. Using an origami technique called an iris folding pattern, Starshade can spread out like a huge space sunflower, and can also fold down to make it more compact. When Starshade is folded down, it can fit onto the top of a rocket. When unfurled, its total diameter is 26 meters.


Origami, which is associated with Japanese culture, is an art form involving folding a piece of paper into different recognizable shapes. The most well-known is the crane shape, though it’s possible to create several more. A small set of basic folds can be combined to come up with intricate three-dimensional shapes. While origami may seem like a simple art, it actually keeps mathematical complexities hidden in its folds.

The Folding Shade

An artist's concept of Starshade in action [Illustration by Jay Wong]



Starshade is actually an instrument that will aid in the search for undiscovered exoplanets. When Starshade unfolds to its full diameter, it will block out the light of faraway stars, much in the same way that people use parasols to block the light of the sun. Because of this, Starshade is being considered for use with the Wide Infrared Survey Telescope. With Starshade, the telescope will then be able to detect the exoplanets orbiting those stars.


One problem that scientists faced, however, is the possibility that a meteorite might strike Starshade. If this happens, the meteorite can puncture a hole in the instrument. The telescope’s sensors will then be overwhelmed and its vision will be compromised.


This is what prompted the people behind Starshade to turn to origami for a way to deal with this risk. "A huge part of my job is looking at something on paper and asking, 'Can we fly this?'" Manan Arya, a technologist working on Starshade, said. "Once I realized this is how you fold spacecraft structures, I became interested in origami.


“We use multiple layers of material to block starlight, separated by some gaps so that, if we do get hit, there’s a good chance that there won’t be a line-of-sight puncture,” Arya continues, explaining how the use of origami can reduce the risk of meteorites compromising the telescope.

Shades of Origami

Scientists at JPL are exploring origami for more ideas on spacecraft design [Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech]



Starshade isn’t the only space instrument whose design takes inspiration from origami. Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab are also working on a project called Transformers For Extreme Environments (TransFormers), which has a folding mirror design inspired by origami as well. TransFormers would be able to bounce the sun’s rays into the craters of the moon, which can be extremely helpful once humans return to the lunar surface. Other examples of origami-inspired hardware designs include solar arrays and a 10-story-tall satellite launched inside a 66-centimeter payload canister.


Folding large space equipment into smaller forms that can fit into smaller containers can be a massive help in space exploration efforts. For example, if a large instrument is necessary for a space mission, transporting it won’t be a problem if it can be folded up and transported more easily. Space agencies won’t have to skimp and compromise their vision in favor of convenience.

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