In 1995 an experimental Japanese spacecraft, named the Space Flyer Unit (SFU), carried several experiments into the Earth’s orbit. Amongst these was perhaps the coolest origami project ever attempted.
In 1970 Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura, inspired by wrinkly faces and satellite photos of the surface of the Earth, devised an origami paper folding pattern which can pack a large sheet into a small space. The pattern involves creasing a a sheet into a sort-of checkerboard of parallelograms, which then easily opens and closes by tugging on the corners of the fold. Kyoto tourist pocket maps have sported this handy folding pattern. Wikimedia Commons even has a neat GIF showing the close and open in action.
The SFU carried origami solar panels that were folded this way and could be easily spread via the use of a simple motor. However, folding them back together posed some problems, and the technology didn’t quite catch on.
These days space solar panels are folded simply, like accordions or fans. However, a more intricate folding approach can potentially help pack a larger solar panel into an even smaller space, which is highly useful for getting it up into space in a smaller, cheaper vessel. Hence NASA has been revisiting the origami concept started by the Japanese space explorers. A team lead by mechanical engineer Brian Trease has developed a prototype solar panel that can spread from 2.7 metres in folded position to 25 metres across when unfolded. It employs several different origami fold methods — including the Miura fold.
The whole thing looks beautiful, too — like a blossoming space flower. Once again proving that the crossover between science, art, and culture can produce wonderful things.