The dream? Orbiting solar panels that beam energy down from space. The problem? Solar panels are shaped with maximum surface area to catch as many rays as possible, but wide, flat disks are also not very aerodynamic on the trip into space. The solution is to get clever with geometry.
For NASA engineer Brian Trease and his collaborators, the inspiration is obvious: origami. They've worked out the folds for a massive solar array 82 feet in diameter that packs down to just 8.9 feet wide. With one simple tug, the entire array opens like a flower, expanding to its full, flat size. Trease has built a 1/20th-scale prototype, which you can see in action in the video at the bottom of this post.
NASA already uses simple accordions and fans to fold arrays for its space missions, but this flower-like solar array prototype is more complicated—and more compact. We might see them used with CubeSats, tiny satellites that we're now sending into space in droves.
Trease's origami solar panel is only a prototype right now, and because solar panels are usually made of thicker material, the ultimate solution could require some tweaking. But it's possible that solar arrays of the future will be inspired by an age-old art. [NASA]
Images courtesy of BYU Photo