By Božo Cicvarić, mag. ing. traff. (EYE-HR)
“Space is one of the places in which origami plays a significant role. Certain items need to be small in order fit into rockets, and then, when they reach their destination in space, they need to be big. When you have those two needs, origami is the right solution for the transition between those two states.” – Robert J. Lang
Science of Origami
Most of us have more or less encountered origami when we were children. Origami is a craft of making a model by folding a paper – no cutting, no gluing.
Today, origami is more than just a crane and a childhood play. There are many types of origami that continually inspire engineers from all fields and professions: biologists, mathematicians, scientists, and – lately – astronauts.
Origami develops spatial intelligence in people and exercises problem-solving thinking. That is one of the reasons why engineers love origami.
Modern origami is an interesting folding technique and a result of 40 years of mathematical research. The interest for it is growing: engineers use it to solve certain problems and its concepts are increasingly integrated into modern technology. Models derived from origami revolutionise fields of robotics, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, architecture, etc.
What intrigues the most is that origami made its way from a distant past, being used for making gifts, all the way to our unexplored universe as a support in space logistics. Since all of the future space research missions depend on logistics, origami deserves its place in science.
Origami – Solution for Solar Array Packaging
One of the major challenges of sending probes into space is the typical logistical question: How to transport as much cargo as possible with minimal energy used? One of the typical challenges in freight transport is the exceeding volume of cargo. How to transport things that are too big?
Supply chain managers have a professional name for problems of this nature. When the volume of transported items is exceptionally large, in comparison to its weight, and it exceeds its packaging limits, the problem is called “Cube Out”. In this case, the transport unit, e.g. a 20-foot container is capacitated by its volume before reaching its weight load limit. The problem of exceeding volumes can be solved with Open Top containers.
Packaging plays a key role in this case!
The contrary to the term “Cube Out” is “Weight Out”; the transported object has reached the weight load limits of the transport unit before reaching the volume load limit. This means that there is still a lot of space in the container, but it cannot be filled with more cargo, because the weight load limit is already reached.
When the problem is seen from the astronaut’s point of view, on an orbital or interplanetary level, it becomes much more complex. The challenge of sending solar arrays into space is the best example.
Solar panels are used to collect solar energy for traveling rockets. Fully expanded, panels make an extremely large surface that is impossible to pack into a rocket and carry into space without special packaging techniques. How did engineers solve this problem? Origami folding technique!
In order to remember how certain origami models are made, origamists use diagrams and crease patterns. Diagrams are 2D instructions that show how to fold the paper to make certain origami models.
One of the innovating techniques that lead to the solution of packaging solar panels into rockets is Miura map – an origami model made by the Japanese astrophysicist Kory Miura. An opened Miura map looks like a chessboard of parallelograms.
What fascinates is that with a simple move, which is the diagonal translation of the ends across the Map, it evenly opens up in a stunning way.
Thus, it became a promising technique by which solar panels can be effectively compressed and loaded into rockets and solve thereby the “Cube Out” problem. With this kind of folding technique, solar panels could be well fit into the rockets. When the rocket launches and reaches its right coordinates at which the panels needs to be spread, the real origami begins.
The Miura folding technique was applied in 1995 in the solar array designed for the Japanese Space Flayer Unit.
Technical Origami at NASA
Other solutions similar to the Miura map also came to the stage, e.g. origami flashers. Mechanical engineering students at Brigham Young University (BYU) made interesting solutions for NASA as well. NASA uses many origami techniques in its labs. One of the best examples is SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) satellites, 20-foot rotating antennas used to collect global measurement data of the Earth’s soil moisture.
Another great example is the Starshade concept, which was made to help satellites take pictures of planets orbiting stars far from the sun. NASA’s flower-shaped starshade is a panel that is able to position itself precisely between the telescope and the star that is being observed, and can block the starlight before it reaches the telescope’s mirrors. In order to transport it into space, the origami flasher technique is used.
In Croatia, the Croatian Origami Society focuses on topics from all origami fields. The society promotes origami in science, art and education.
I would like to thank the people who helped with their informations during the process of writing this article:
Ante Radonić, publicly known expert of astronautics in Croatia who worked over 40 years in the Technical museum „Nikola Tesla“ in Zagreb
Sanja Srbljinović Čuček, president of Croatian Origami Society
Branimir Čuček, Mechanical Engineer
About the author
Božo Cicvarić, mag.ing.traff. is Vice president of EYE Croatia. Alongside the president, Marin Dokoza, he helped in formatting EYE Croatia and of becoming and EYE member organisation in January 2018. He is from Zagreb, Croatia. In 2016 he earned his master’s degree in the field of Logistics at the Faculty of Traffic and Transport Sciences of the University of Zagreb. Currently, he is working in a Transport Planning company. Božo is passionate about new emerging technologies and the way they impact our daily lives – virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printers, you name it. He hopes he can contribute to EYE by making engineering more attractive to young generations and by making engineers in Croatia and Europe share their experiences. Božo is also a member of Croatian Origami Society in Zagreb.