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How origami influences science


Guest Commentary by Rashmita Kashyap



Have you ever imagined the power of a piece of paper? Paper was said to be documented during the Eastern Han period (25 – 220 CE), when paper was primarily used for artwork, writing and for packaging staffs.

In 105 CE, Chai Lun, a Chinese court official has brought up the idea of paper. His paper making skills mainly involved fishnet, old rags, hemp waste and bark of trees.

During the 6th century, Buddhist monks carried the concept of paper making to Korea and Japan. In 1680, Ihara Saikaku, a Japanese poet first described Origami through butterflies. Origami is a compound of two Japanese words: "ori" meaning to fold and "gami" translates to "paper".

In 1797, Senbazuru Orikata, the first origami instruction book was published revealing several origami stories from Japanese culture.

Origami, the ancient art of Japanese paper-folding, has been used for creating stunning works of art for years, but we never focused on the fact that origami can be used in many practical applications like car airbags, stents and even in space applications.

Robert Salazar, a technologist from NASA said, "Seeing the single uncut sheet, it has everything you need to create all of the origami that has ever been folded. It is all in the single sheet so there is endless potential".

His endless efforts on paper-folding sheets have been appreciated at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The underlying mathematics of origami has proved an efficient technique of folding large thin sheets used in the biggest rockets in NASA, which is only 5 meters in diameter. Eventually, many space projects have used the folding principles of Origami like the solar array wings on the ISS (International Space Station) which uses a "Z" folding pattern and the Mars Phoenix lander used a fan - folded solar array, called the Ultra Flex.

Have you ever tried to take a picture of someone when the bright sun is beating down on them? Your subject is washed out and it is impossible to capture any detail.

Well, this is the same problem faced by astronomers while trying to image exoplanets.

For an earth-sized exoplanet orbiting a sun like star, they can’t be imaged in detail, because the stars they circle are much brighter than they are. This is when the Starshade comes in, to help suppress that bright light to better help astronomers learn more about these mysterious planets and look for bio signatures for life.

Starshade is roughly the size of a baseball diamond. So, the researchers came up with a way of folding these very large structures that can be launched into space inside a rocket. Once it gets into space it can unfold itself. This giant space flower, under development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, may look simple in design but not in mathematical implementation with a requirement of accuracy in millimetres.

Origami has been practiced on Earth for years, and scientists will continue to draw inspiration from it to help package big space structures more efficiently. From solar sails that use sunlight for propulsion, to sun – shades for space telescopes like Gaia, and the James Webb which was launched in 2019.

When it comes to the future of space exploration, if we want to think big we also have to think small.


About the author: Rashmita Kashyap is working as a training officer for the Indian government at Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship in India. She has completed her master's from National Institute of Technology, Arunachal Pradesh and has authored several scientific journals for research proposals. She enjoys great food, likes to travel and have a passion for adventures in her leisure time.

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