By Božo Cicvarić, mag. ing. traff. (EYE-HR)
“It is very expensive and very difficult to get things into space. Origami can help overcome this issue.”
ORIGAMI (jap. Oru = folding, kami = paper) is a craft or technique of making structures by folding paper – no cutting, no gluing. It became most famous during the 1930s thanks to the „father of origami“, the japanese artist Akira Yoshizawa. Although it is known as a Japanese tradition, Chinese and Spanish influence helped to make modern origami what it is today.
Expandable habitats require less volume and weight in rockets than rigid (non-foldable) modules, which increase the efficiency of sending shipments into space. This results in less rocket launches, which ultimately reduces overall costs.
The last blog article described the application of modern technical origami in solving the problem of packing solar panels into rockets. Now, this article describes another interesting example of origami application in space logistics, called BEAM – Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. It describes how origami technique can be used to provide additional crew or cargo space in space missions with lower financial demand.
Expandable habitat for space stations
In the 1960s, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) began to consider the idea of inflatable habitats for astronauts. The challenge was to create additional space for crew members. This resulted in the emergence of the TransHab concept during the 1990s. The project was not successful and was cancelled by the Congress in 2000. The company Bigelow Aerospace purchased the rights of the patent and started to make its own designs for NASA. These habitats were intended for International Space Station (ISS).
Bigelow Aerospace is a USA based start-up company specialised in development of expandable habitat technologies for the ISS. The company was founded by Robert Bigelow in North Las Vegas (Nevada) in 1988. Under contract, Bigelow Aerospace has offered to NASA a new interesting solution – the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). BEAM is an experimental expandable space station module for the ISS inspired by the origami folding technique.
BEAM was first sent on Space X`s eighth commercial resupply service to the International Space Station.
Expandable habitats, also called inflatable habitats, have the function of reducing the transport volume for future space research missions. Thanks to its folding capabilities, they require minimal space inside the rocket. Once they are set up in the station dock, they expand to provide additional space for the astronaut’s lives.
CRS-8 Dragon resupply mission – origami in full swing
BEAM was transported to the ISS in the year 2016 within Musk’s SpaceX CRS-8 Dragon. This was also the first private jet to visit the ISS. When Dragon was berthed in the ISS, the British astronaut Tim Peake used the robotic arm called Canadarm2 to take the BEAM module and pin it to the static aft port of the Tranquility node of the ISS.
After the module was secured and connected, the real origami started. BEAM started to unfold from its packing length of 1.7 meters to its length of 4 meters. It increased from 2.36 meters to 3.2 meters in diameter after the expansion. Its mass is 1,413 kg. BEAM is made of several protective layers such as an air barrier layer and a shield against micro-meteoroid and orbital debris (MMOD).
“In August 2017 it was announced to the public that the BEAM module will remain connected to the space station for the next three years. It will be used to store up to 130 cargo bags in order to free space inside the station itself for astronauts.”
Crew members of the ISS enter the BEAM four times a year to collect data and check the structural status of the module. The protective layers of BEAM provide protection against solar and cosmic radiation as well.
It is interesting that NASA published on its web page a PDF instruction for astronauts from which they can learn how to fold origami modules that inspired the creation of BEAM. The document is publicly available, and it can be downloaded from nasa.gov.
The first attempt to send the BEAM module up to the ISS was held in 2015. It was unsuccessful because of the problem of launching the SpaceX CRS-7 rocket in which BEAM was packed. The first successful expansion was achieved on May 26, 2016 with several difficulties. The module did not unfold properly, and the reason was obvious from the experts’ point of view. The failure of the CRS-7 launch resulted in the 10-month delay of expansion and unfolding of BEAM which made the fabric layers of BEAM stick too tight to each other.
The future of expandable habitats in space
Origami habitats such as BEAM are considered usable not only for freeing up space at space stations. Planning a trip to Mars, for example, is an extremely demanding and logistically complex process at which NASA engineers are continually working.
Today, BEAM serves as a demonstration of the technology of expandable space habitats.
Before sending the first astronaut to the Red Planet, NASA is considering a method of sending a few supply rockets that will await astronauts when they arrive on Mars. This method is part of the third logistical paradigm called prepositioning. Astronauts know when and where they will exactly be during arrival and the materials are sent in advance to meet them at the given location. Perhaps expandable modules could serve as a useful solution.
If BEAM appears to be successful and useful for several occasions, it could encourage the development of expandable structures for future crews traveling in deep space. Crew members that plan to travel to the Moon, Mars or other destinations will be able to use them for additional space. It is a perfect demonstration of the importance that modern origami will have in future space exploration missions.
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.