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Origami and its Usefulness in Spacecrafts

Author: Christine Chen

Editors: Hwi-On Lee and Rachel Chen

Artist: Chiara Chen

Origami is the Japanese word for “folding paper.” Over the years, people have practiced this art to create things like paper cranes, fortune tellers, and lotuses. However, it has also been used in cars for airbags, stents—a small mesh tube used to open narrowed arteries—and space exploration. Origami works well as an engineering tool because it is one of the only ways to condense large structures into smaller spaces. In particular, spacecraft often use these techniques as a cutting-edge solution to the design and deployment of various fundamental components that are crucial for space exploration, such as solar wings and mirrors. This innovative approach allows scientists to manipulate materials, especially thin ones, to accommodate the larger structures within the confined spaces of rockets.

An example of origami in action is the James Webb Space Telescope. Launched in December of 2021, it is both the largest and the most powerful telescope that has ever been placed in space—100 times more powerful than the renowned Hubble telescope. Most telescopes use mirrors to capture light, which in turn produce detailed depictions of stars or galaxies. The James Webb telescope’s primary mirror has a diameter of 6.5 meters, while Hubble’s mirror is only 2.4 meters. Given the challenge of transporting this enormous mirror to space, engineers ingeniously devised a folding mechanism for its launch, enabling it to gracefully unfold to its full size once reaching its orbital destination. 

Another amazing application of origami technology is the design of the starshade, a spacecraft that is essentially a giant star blocker. Capturing images in space is inherently challenging, particularly when scientists seek to capture the faint lights emitted by a less luminous star amidst the overwhelming brilliance of other celestial bodies. Researchers use starlight suppression to overcome this hurdle. The Starshade is one example of this; it will be strategically deployed in front of satellites to block out light from larger stars. However, because of its immense scale, it is too large to fit in a rocket without alterations. Thus, engineers have devised a plan to make it fold like origami. It will expand when in space, but remain in the rocket until then. 

The use of origami in spacecraft may be surprising, but it is becoming more widely used. The application of this craft in the construction of space telescopes and starshades is a remarkable convergence of ancient crafts with technological innovations. Origami has solved the problem of deploying too-large mechanisms, allowing spacecraft to be used for a variety of purposes—and these new techniques can be implemented not just in astronomy, but in other fields of science and beyond.



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