Brian Trease, a mechanical engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, became fascinated with origami as an exchange student in Japan. Years later, Trease is working with researchers from Brigham Young University to design foldable solar panels modeled after the techniques of origami. NASA hopes to use these solar panels in future space expeditions.
"Origami has been the subject of serious mathematical analysis only within the last 40 years," says Trease. "There is growing interest in integrating the concepts of origami with modern technologies."
According to CleanTechnica, this research could mean that "NASA's biggest challenge of transporting bulky space objects [will get] a simple solution — folding them." Incorporating light and "easily deployable" solar panels into spacecraft could make space travel a lot easier.
Trease and his team have used a material called Hannaflex to build a prototype. The folded, flower-shaped model unfolds to a hexagonal shape with a greater surface area. Collapsible panels have previously been used in space, but NASA hopes this design can raise the technology to a new level as these solar panels could also bring considerable advances to the field of renewable energy back to Earth.
For example, Trease envisions "an orbiting power plant that wirelessly beams power down to Earth using microwaves. Sending the solar arrays up to space would be easy because they could all be folded and packed into a single rocket launch, with no astronaut assembly required."
The solar panels might also be used with satellites, or even to make "origami antennas."
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