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Origami expert, NASA researchers fold solar arrays for space

NASA has joined forces with an origami expert to meld art and technology in the creation of foldable solar structures that could one day go into space.

Solar array prototype
The prototype solar panel array folded up. BYU

Most solar panels aren't much to look at. They're flat and functional, not the sort of thing you would display in an art gallery. A prototype for a solar array developed by NASA is more like a solar flower than a solar panel. It's both beautiful and practical.

Brian Trease is a mechanical engineer with NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and an origami enthusiast. He worked with researchers from Brigham Young University and origami expert Robert Lang to develop an array that could fold up as small as 8.9 feet in diameter and unfold to an impressive 82 feet. As a proof of concept, the team created a tabletop-sized prototype that expands to just over 4 feet wide. It was created by combining different types of origami folds.

The appeal of this approach is that the arrays could be packed up small for launch and then unfolded once deployed in space.

"This is a unique crossover of art and culture and technology," says Trease. He believes this sort of solar array could be deployed with spacecraft as small as a CubeSat, a type of tiny low-cost satellite.

Taking a more far-reaching look forward, the origami-style solar arrays could be sent into orbit to act as power plants, beaming usable power back down to Earth via microwaves.

The application of origami to solar arrays isn't new, but it is a mostly undiscovered frontier. One notable earlier example involved the use of an origami fold developed by astrophysicist Koryo Miura to build a solar panel for a Japanese satellite. That happened back in 1995. The NASA team is now revisiting and refining the concept.

Will we see solar swans in space? Probably not, but it's looking like solar origami flowers may someday take flight to create beautiful blooms in orbit.

Origami-inspired solar array
BYU doctoral student Shannon Zirbel unfolds the prototype array. BYU