Spotlight TEDx Talk: Can origami advance space exploration?


A rendering of HanaFlex, an origami-inspired solar array (Animation by NASA/JPL)

What does origami have to do with space travel? Potentially a lot says NASA Space Technology Research Fellow Shannon Zirbel at TEDxPeachtree. Zirbel is part of team working on HanaFlex, a giant collapsible wheel of solar panels — inspired by the Japanese art of origami (hana is Japanese for flower) — designed to wrap around a spacecraft and harness energy from the sun to power the craft or send back to Earth.

Currently, the furthest humans have traveled from Earth is 248,655 miles, Zirbel says, and a big reason why we haven’t gone farther is due to issues of power, she explains. Take Mars, for example. Though we’ve successfully sent rovers to the planet, humans are a bit more tricky, Zirbel says. “Just to get from Earth to Mars, it’s an eight month journey at the minimum,” she says, “and when we send a rover, we don’t have to [use] a lot of power on the flight. They don’t breathe, they don’t really care if there are lights on or not, but if we’re sending people, then [power] becomes a bigger concern. So we need ways to provide power for this eight-month journey.”

HanaFlex is an attempt to provide that power. Because a large number of solar panels are needed to capture a large amount of power, some clever engineering is necessary to “fit ever-larger solar arrays into the rockets that will launch them into space,” Zirbel says, so she and her colleagues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory turned to origami, using guidance from art to further science.

The team started with paper, then moved to designing with the physics of solar panels in mind, a task not so easy, since panels are delicate, hard and not very bendable, said Zirbel.

Origami Solar Array Prototype from JPLraw on Vimeo.

The prototype is compact and relatively lightweight, which is important when planning space missions, Zirbel says. And although HanaFlex is still in development, the team behind it has high hopes for its potential.

Watch Zirbel’s whole talk below:

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