Origami in space: Shape changing is a game changer

Purdue College of Engineering
Purdue Engineering Review
4 min readMay 18, 2023

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This illustration depicts how Purdue’s Automation and Optimization Laboratory (AOL) uses one designed origami crease pattern to fit both a 3D elliptical surface (left) and a hyperbolic surface (right), demonstrating the transformation capability of the origami structure. (Purdue University image/Automation and Optimization Laboratory)

Used to be, getting to another planet was a wild dream. Now we’re talking about living on one.

That’s going to require autonomous transformable systems — shape shifters — in future space missions. These multipurpose systems will meet the needs of the rapidly-growing space domain business. They can provide more powerful space robotics, with advanced multifunctionality to accomplish multitask missions. They can offer onsite servicing to extend satellite lifetimes. And they will be capable of in-space assembling — via robotic arms that can unfold and refold multiple times — to upgrade or construct new satellites.

Every single space launch has a high cost associated with limited mass and volume. As such, a transformable system that can adapt its shape or function in situ — so space mission personnel don’t have to receive new payloads constantly, or travel back and forth between another planet and the Earth — will address the challenges of high mass and volume demands in space missions.

To create these reconfigurable structures with lightweight, deployable capabilities, scientists have introduced origami into the space equation. Origami, the ancient art of paper folding that originated in Japan, derives from the Japanese word ori, for folding, and kami, which means paper. Over the years, it has evolved from a creative, decorative art into an engineering tool to overcome design issues — typically, how to fit larger structures with the functionality you need into the smaller volume the application requires.

Existing space-related applications of origami-inspired structures focus on volume saving in a launch. A well-known example is the foldable space panels that relax the volume constraints to fit in a conventional launch vehicle with a single fairing (the external structure in a spacecraft that is intended to protect the internal payload).

The most recent use has been in the James Webb Space Telescope, which applies the principles of origami to fit its mirrors and sunshields into the rocket and then deploy and unfold them once in space. Transformable systems have been used for inflatable habitats for astronauts, such as NASA’s Bigelow Expandable Activity Module on the International Space Station.

However, the existing space-related applications of origami-inspired systems have not applied the unique transformation capability in more demanding missions — such as those involving exploration, in-orbit manufacturing, and repairing — or served for more than one-time use. One reason: Origami transformation, particularly in real time, can be unpredictable and difficult to control. Challenges on the research side include simulating space environments (e.g., with extreme temperature and zero gravity), and realizing the transformation control and actuation in such settings.

Our research aims to develop intelligent, origami-inspired transformable systems to support the design and control of adaptable systems for resource reuse and cost reduction in space missions. In addition, we’re working to make the transformation process autonomous, which will reduce or avoid dangerous spacewalks for astronauts.

Scenarios of origami structure applied in space operations (from left to right): launch and deployment of solar arrays; delivery of end-effectors via a shape-adaptable robotic arm without contacting the exterior of the customer satellite; and unfolding of an expandable activity module. (Composite image developed by Purdue University/Automation and Optimization Laboratory, including drawings by Ran Dai)

The National Science Foundation’s Division of Computer and Network Systems has awarded us a grant to accomplish these goals. The funding will support creation of an autonomous, origami-based transformable system that can enable high-performance transformation maneuvering in situations in space that require timely, frequent shape changes to perform different functions.

We can imagine a scenario in which human beings live on Mars in the future. People there will use inflatable habitats as temporary houses that are portable after folding. They will use transformable robots that can adapt their functionality (e.g., climbing, rolling and crawling) for multitask exploration missions. When replacing any malfunctioning parts, the Mars dwellers can use the adaptable origami modules to fit the target parts by changing their shapes/dimensions.

As this technology takes hold, we envision it helping to reshape our future explorations into space.

Ran Dai, PhD

Associate Professor, School of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Principal Investigator, Automation and Optimization Laboratory (AOL)

Faculty Contributor, Institute for Control, Optimization and Networks (ICON)

Faculty Council Member, Autonomous and Connected Systems (ACS) Initiative

College of Engineering

Purdue University

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