How Ancient Japanese Art Could Drive Humanity’s Future in Space

Arts & Culture

The principles of origami are finding remarkable applications in NASA technologies

Nestor Bailly, PSFK
  • 21 august 2014

NASA mechanical engineer Brian Trease has had a life-long interest in origami, the Japanese art of paper folding; as a high school student he would fold cheeseburger wrappers into cranes. Now, working at NASA’s famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he is examining new ways to build devices sent into space using the principles of origami.


After studying the art’s intricate methods of folding paper, Trease set out to adapt what he learned to another thin material used in space travel: solar panels. Although they are substantially thicker than paper, solar panels can still fold and bend in certain ways. Using a combination of different folds adapted for thick materials, Trease and a doctoral student from Brigham Young University created a prototype solar panel that unfolds radially from its center.


If built, their structure would start about 9 feet in diameter, then unfold to be 82 feet across. This would be perfect for either small satellites like CubeSats or large-scale structures like future space stations or orbiting microwave power plants.

It is remarkable to see a new technological innovation derived direction from re-appropriating ancient knowledge. This is truly a case of art preceding science, and can hopefully make space-based devices cheaper and more accessible. Who knows, maybe your grandkid’s basement-built Drone CubeSat will use Trease’s solar panel as a power supply.



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