NASA develops origami solar panels for future spacecraft

18 Aug 2014

Shannon Zirbel, a PhD student in mechanical engineering at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, unfolds a solar panel. Image via Brigham Young University

US space agency NASA has taken a further step in developing enormous solar sails for longer-lasting and more efficient absorption of solar energy capable of being used on spacecraft and near-Earth stations.

Because of its obvious abundance in space, solar energy is used by almost every craft launched from Earth to create a near-limitless supply of power, whether it be for space stations or satellites. However, the problem remains that the size and efficiency of solar panels are still far from ideal.

Now, a team of researchers from NASA and Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah have created a solar panel that, when in space, will fold out like an origami structure that will not only make it substantially bigger, but improve its efficiency tenfold, according to NASA.

Head of the project and origami enthusiast Brian Trease sought the help of origami expert Robert Lang and Larry Howell of BYU to develop the folding solar array that would start at a size of just under 9 feet and expand to 82 feet across.

A video posted by NASA showing the unfolding of the ‘Miura’ fold design

They have based the design off the classic ‘Miura’ fold, created by Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura. When folded out, the design resembles a checkerboard of parallelograms.

Aside from powering satellites, this design of solar panels could have significant uses, as in giant solar power plants circling the Earth that would beam energy down to the Earth’s surface through microwaves.

In speaking about using origami as his inspiration, Trease said, “You think of it as ancient art, but people are still inventing new things, enabled by mathematical tools.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic