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To Make A Spacecraft That Folds And Unfolds, Try Origami

Scientists and engineers at NASA are using origami techniques to help solve a fundamental dilemma facing spacecraft designers: How do you take a big object, pack it into a small container for rocket launch, and then unpack it again once it arrives in space — making sure nothing breaks in the process.

Brian Trease, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says one way is to use something called the Miura fold, named for its inventor, Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura.

As an example, Trease folds up a sheet of paper using the Miura fold. (Grab a sheet of paper and you can follow along, step-by-step, here or in this youtube video.)

The folded sheet looks a bit like the folded maps you can buy at gas stations. But instead of multiple steps to unfold it, all you need to do is grasp the corners of the paper and pull. It's simple — and simplicity is key when designing a spacecraft.

"If I was deploying [a solar panel] in space," Trease says, "I would only need one motor to do that deployment. That's the beauty of the design."

And the usefulness of origami in space exploration doesn't end with solar panels.

For example, we can now print things like electronic circuits, solar cells and displays directly onto sheets of paper, Trease says, and scientists are devising ways take these sheets and fold them up into into useful instruments — such as seismometers or atmospheric detectors.

"What really excites me is the idea of just sending the entire printer up into orbit," Trease says. Then if you needed a different sensor, he explains, you could just upload the design and print out a new one in space.

"There are folks here," he says, "interested in what we call printable spacecraft."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kara Manke
Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.