NASA Engineers Inspired by Origami Folding Techniques

The Japanese art form combined with math can improve space-bound solar panels

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© 2017 NASA

Brian Trease has been inspired by the traditional Japanese art of paper folding, since his high school days as a student at a study program in Japan. Now, Trease, who works as a mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, spends a lot of time thinking of ways to incorporate the principles of origami into solar panel devices that could be put into space.

Origami, as an artform, began in the 17th century, and was popularised in Western culture from the mid 19th century onwards. The artform is still evolving today.

Trease told NASA that his work is "a unique crossover of art and culture and technology.” He began his work in earnest as a research collaborator to Shannon Zirbel, a doctoral student at Brigham Young University.

Panels already play a central part in space missions, but origami can enable more complex and intricate folds that actually simplify the overall structure, and allow for easy deployment. 

Zirbel and Trease have continued their collaboration, and last year worked with origami expert Robert Lang and BYU professor Larry Howell to create a solar panle that is 8.9 feet (2.7 meters) in diameter, folded, and 82 feet (25 meters) unfolded.

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Origami Solar Array Prototype from JPLraw on Vimeo.