Help NASA Design a Radiation Shield That Folds Like Origami

NASA is launching an idea challenge for a compact radiation shield that would protect spacecraft and the astronauts within.

Origami rocket (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Origami rocket (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Through its Tournament Lab, NASA is making crowdsourcing a part of the future of space travel. Following competitions on an array of space problems, including robot arm architecture, a 3D printed Mars habitat, and delivering astronaut email, NASA is now looking for proposals on how to fold a radiation shield like origami.

As Nicola Davis reported for the Guardian, the idea challenge is launching today through Freelancer, an online outsourcing marketplace. On Freelancer, NASA states that the challenge is to “develop a 3D folding concept for radiation shielding used to cover human habitation sections of spacecraft.” These shields would protect spacecraft, and the astronauts within, from galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), and are essential for deep space travel. With storage space at a premium onboard these proposed vessels, such shields would need to be as compact as possible.

And that’s where the origami comes in. Perhaps most familiar to people as a foldable, and sometimes frustrating, art, its skill in reducing a sheet of paper to a dense maze of mountains and valleys has wider applications. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory previously explored how to use the craft of paper-folding to store solar panels for space travel, and physicist, origami expert, and former NASA scientist Robert J. Lang has experimented with its use in things like automotive airbags. 

Outsourcing ideas to the gig economy isn’t as great as NASA hiring those minds, yet it is a creative way for the organization to innovate, even as funding cuts put into question whether deep space travel is a possibility. Meanwhile, NASA has more upcoming initiatives you can join, such as making observations as a citizen scientist during the August 21 solar eclipse, and suggesting patch designs for a mission to test the limits of 3D recyclability.

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