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Shannon Zirbel with the solar panel array prototype, designed using the principles of origami, unfolded (courtesy BYU)

The future of space flight may be founded on the traditions of art. Using the techniques of origami, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is examining how to use the craft of paper-folding to compact solar panels for space travel.

Brian Trease with the solar panel array prototype (photograph courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Japanese origami art traditions have already been referenced in diverse technology, from airbags in cars to transforming robots to human tissue engineering, and for space exploration having something take up as little space as possible, while being easily unpacked, is essential. “You think of it as ancient art, but people are still inventing new things, enabled by mathematical tools,” NASA mechanical engineer Brian Trease, who has a longtime interest in origami, explained in a release. Trease worked with Brigham Young University doctoral student Shannon Zirbel, and collaborated with origami expert Robert Lang, who has long been active in promoting it in science, and BYU professor Larry Howel, to combine different traditional folds for an 82-foot solar array that whirls down to 8.9 feet.

The video below demonstrates the solar array blossoming from a small spiral to a flat panel — a  “no astronaut assembly required” design. Potentially the origami-influenced device could be incorporated into satellites or even spacecrafts. For now, it’s an experiment in adapting a centuries-old art to cutting edge design.

h/t PSFK

Read more about the origami solar panel project at NASA.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

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