Improving Space Travel with Synthetic Biology
We asked planetary science experts how self-folding structures could aid space exploration. Here is what they said.
When launching satellites, probes, telescopes, and manned spacecraft into orbit, volume is everything. Because rockets need to fly through the atmosphere at supersonic speeds, payloads need to be packed into sleek, aerodynamic fairings at the tip of the rocket. A typical fairing has a diameter of just 5 meters. Carrying up large structures like solar panels and telescope mirrors requires the use of compact folding for launch.
A size comparison of the International Space Station and a 5 meter-diameter payload fairing cross section. Most medium and heavy launch vehicles support a maximum fairing diameter of 5 meters. ISS image retrieved from www.historicspacecraft.com.
Because volume is so limited, origami is already used heavily in the space industry. We interviewed Dr. Harry Partridge, the Center Chief Technologist at NASA Ames, to find out what folding structures are used in spacecraft today. To name just one example, the Ultraflex Solar Array used on the Mars Phoenix Lander deploys by unfolding many isosceles triangles into a circle. Other folding structures include telescope mirrors, sun shields, inflatable habitats, and solar sails.
Our project goal is to develop the concept of origami in space further, by making the structures (1) self-folding and self-unfolding, and (2) produced biologically, which allows for in-situ resource utilization. We interviewed Dr. David Korsmeyer, the Director of Engineering at NASA Ames, about how this technology could be used in space exploration. He says repositories of hundreds of different structures could be sent on manned missions flat-packed as reams of paper for on-demand use by astronauts. These flat sheets could fold into simple structures like boxes, cups, and other containers, or more complicated structures. We envision several other possible uses for BiOrigami. Self-folding structures could be used to deploy inflatable habitats, solar arrays, sun shields, and more. Small, self-unfolding paper-based probes could be dispersed around the Martian surface and relay weather information, relying on solar power.
Top: The Ultraflex Solar Array System in its folded and unfolded state. Bottom: The Ultraflex Solar Array System as deployed on the Mars Phoenix Lander. Images are from the Orbital ATK Ultraflex fact sheet (top) and NASA/JPL/UA/Lockheed Martin (bottom).
About the Experts
Dr. Peter Schultz is a planetary scientist specializing in impact cratering and volcanic modifications to planetary surfaces. Before becoming a Professor of Geological Sciences at Brown University, Dr. Schultz was a research associate at NASA Ames.
Dr. Jim Head is a planetary scientist who has worked on NASA projects including the Apollo program, the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter, and the MESSENGER Mercury orbiter. Dr. Head is a Professor of Geological Sciences at Brown University.
Erica Jawin is a 3rd year PhD student at Brown University studying lunar spectroscopy of volcanic deposits and glaciation on Mars.
Lauren Jozwiak is a 5th year PhD student at Brown University studying planetary vulcanism, including the interaction between intrusive magnetism extrusive vulcanism on the terrestrial planets.
Dr. Harry Partridge is the Center Chief Technologist at NASA Ames Research Center. His role includes identifying and developing new and emerging technologies for NASA applications.
Dr. David Korsmeyer is the Director of Engineering at the NASA Ames Research Center. He has worked on missions including the Phoenix Mars Lander, the International Space Station, and the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter.