Despite what many people may think, origami has been flying through space for many years. This ancient art of paper folding, which we have often used to create paper airplanes just for fun, originated in China and Japan around 1400 years ago. Until relatively recently, there were only a few hundred designs, but today there are tens of thousands, thanks in particular, to Akira Yoshizawa, a great teacher who contributed thousands of designs to this art in the 20th century, generating a renaissance of creativity around the world.
Origami is more than just entertainment, it’s a design philosophy that can significantly aid aerospace development.
But origami goes beyond the entertainment aspect we all know. There are companies dedicated exclusively to the study and creation of designs for multiple technological sectors, managing to turn a sheet of paper into any shape using folding patterns.
The basic technique involves turning a flat sheet of paper into a three-dimensional shape, using relatively little processing, using only techniques for folding along lines marked on the paper, but there is more to this than meets the eye.
In addition to lines, there are segments, angles, common points, polygons, plane figures, three-dimensional figures, coordinate systems, numbers and lengths. This is a design environment that brings together engineers, physicists and mathematicians, to develop patterns to create objects of any shape. It is possible to create the typical paper airplane, boats, animal figures, or more complex designs such as geometric figures, mobile structures, folding designs and even stable mechanisms. And all of this can be done simply by folding, without the need for joints, nuts or connections.
Applying these techniques to the field of medicine, for example, incredible tools have been created, such as forceps for laparoscopic operations that require 75% less parts than their predecessor; these can change form and adapt better to the environment without the need to change tools during the procedure. And tools can be smaller, which reduces the space required for the intervention. Another achievement is the creation of a bellows, that covers an intracorporeal catheter, which expands and contracts without reducing the interior orifice. This makes it possible to protect the catheter, which is inserted into the body, without ever being uncovered, without putting pressure on it in the process and supporting it throughout.
Simply folding a sheet of paper makes it stiffer. Applied to engineering, this reduces the volume of material needed to create any design. The biggest challenge in engineering, however, is how to fold thick and rigid materials to reduce size. These techniques are being applies to materials such as polypropylene, steel, graphite, aluminium, synthetic fibres, fabrics and any material that can be produced in a sheet.
In electronics, origami is used to create small automatic folding mechanisms in electronic boards or in the manufacture of nanoinjectors.
Applied to the aerospace environment, we can see how these techniques have been used for years in many processes. For example, origami is applied to the aircraft’s folding life rafts (able to fit in small spaces and fully deploy in a few seconds), to emergency evacuation ramps, or even to novel design technologies (such as jet aircraft engine outlet nozzles, which can rapidly turn in different directions, expanding and contracting in a controlled manner, giving aircraft great manoeuvrability).
Origami techniques are also used in space. We will be most familiar with those used to safely fold and deploy solar panels on satellites. In 1995, the first origami was launched using a technique known as Miura-ori and consisted of a solar panel folded in a small space, which could be quickly deployed to power the satellite.
Currently, an even more effective design called Origami flasher is being used. This is a folding pattern that allows large solar panels to be even more compact at launch and increases reliability in deployment. This technique is improving to reduce the size of panels up to 10 times their size.
Origami techniques already form part of the developments of space telescopes. The James Webb space telescope is a case in point, in which 18 folding mirrors, made of beryllium hexagonal parts, are folded to be sent into space. These 18 mirrors form a total collecting surface of 6.5m in diameter. This is a considerable increase compared to Hubble’s main mirror, a single piece that is 2.4m in diameter. Since there is currently no rocket capable of transporting something this size in one piece, engineers, using origami techniques and patterns, have succeeded in folding these mirrors in a way that allows them to be transported and deployed safely. For NASA, achieving this feat is a milestone that paves the way for the development of other larger and more complex objects that improve the study of the universe.
With scientific studies and the advances that mathematics is incorporating into this art turned into science, any shape that is needed can be created in space, with little need for assembly and tools, just by folding. In practice, this is already being used to design future exploration expeditions to Mars for the deployment of stable bases on this planet or in solar sail designs. Engineers and architects research how to fold different materials or metal panels to build structures and design buildings and tents, which can provide the space necessary for future expedition members.
All of these developments and research make origami a technical possibility to take into account. This opens up a world of imagination and an infinity of practical applications in an environment in which space and the need to maximize the material resources available will be very challenging to deal with.
Indeed, origami is not just an entertaining technique, but a design philosophy that can significantly aid aerospace development.