Since solar power is only freely available on Earth (mostly) only for half a day, it seems rather obvious – especially 50 years into the space age – that the ideal solar solution is to simply have solar panels in space where Earth's daily rotation is not a factor.
The problem has been annoying so far – panels that are too small bring too little energy; panels too big would be too massive to launch off Earth in the first place.
It turns out one solution may be to simply fold the panels. Researchers at Brigham Young University and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory came up with a solar panel that folds like origami into something 10 times smaller than its original size. When folded, the solar array is nearly nine feet across but once it's in space, it can expand to a width of 82 feet.
Paper cranes in space? No.
The idea for origami was a surprisingly easy fit. For one, Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura was already working on a similarly-inspired panel in the 1990s though it did not pan out eventually. Moreover, Brian Trease a mechanical engineer at NASA adds, “we're dealing with big, large, flat, thin structures; origami was one of the first things that came to mind.”
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory commissioned one of its former employees for the project: Robert Lang, a world-renowned origami expert and, interestingly enough, former mathematician and engineer. Trease explains Lang left the formal and bureaucratic world of academia to pursue his love of origami. Trease also adds that there is much value in consulting a specialist, simply for their unique vision and perspective to bring in original solutions.
The solar panels are designed to power spacecraft and other objects in Earth's orbit but there is some talk about orbiting power stations that send energy to power us on Earth remotely. A separate design may also have applications powering remote areas using solar energy.
Trease also adds that they will be looking at what other applications origami-fold designs may have in deploying other objects into space within the next few weeks.