Can origami advance space exploration? | Shannon Zirbel | TEDxPeachtree

Can origami advance space exploration? | Shannon Zirbel | TEDxPeachtree


Translator: Yifat Adler
Reviewer: Denise RQ Good morning. What a great privilege
it is to be here today. What I hope that you take away
from my presentation is that inspiration can
come from anywhere. No matter what field do you work in, you can find inspiration
in some of the most unexpected of places. When I was five years old, my older sister brought home
a poster of the Moon from school. I was fascinated by it. I wanted to go there. In fact, from five all the way
through high school, I wanted to be an astronaut. It was my goal to be the first woman
on the Moon. And my life plan has been
a little bit different since high school, but this project that I’m working on now has given me the opportunity
to fulfill that childhood dream and to enjoy that excitement
of space exploration. So, let me tell you a little
about Hannaflex. Hannaflex is a solar array
that would wrap around a spacecraft and be used to power
either that spacecraft or to provide energy
as a clean energy source for Earth. We call it Hannaflex
because Hanna means ‘flower’ in Japanese, and of course origami
is the Japanese art of paper folding. And as you can see, as it enfolds,
it kind of looks like a flower. The solar panels
that are on the solar array work much like the solar panels
you might see on a house in areas of high sun. These solar panels collect
energy from the Sun, convert it into electricity, and that’s used, in this case,
to heat their pool. In our case, we might use
these solar panels to enable missions to Mars or beam energy back to Earth
by microwave radiation. The possibilities are really endless. I grew up loving space
and wanting to explore it, but I know that’s not everyone’s dream. Although I’m willing to bet
that there are several people out there who did want to be an astronaut
at some point during their childhood. Yes, yes, OK, great. Regardless of what your childhood
aspirations might have been, the technologies that come
out of space exploration, really benefit our lives here on Earth. I’ll give you a few examples. First, the health field
is full of examples of what we call spin-off technologies. These are things that have been developed because of the research done
to push the boundaries of science and technology
for space exploration. So, even though my inner child is really excited about
this idea of space exploration, I also get to fulfill
a little bit of a higher dream of helping make the world a better place. What about memory
from mattresses and pillows? That came out of NASA research as well. As did things like the Nerf Super Soaker,
invisible braces, scratch-resistant lenses,
and even in-ear thermometers. These are just a few of the many examples
of things that we might not have if not for space exploration. From 1969 to 1972 this was a really
exciting time for space exploration, especially human exploration of space. We put six successful missions
on the Moon, earning 12 men the enviable distinction
of having walked on the Moon. The prospect of space travel
was really exciting then, for about those four years. But today, about the furthest you can travel
is the International Space Station, which is still really cool,
but it’s in low-Earth orbit, which is only about 200 miles
above the Earth. And even then, these days, we have to go all the way
to Russia just to catch a ride. So, we’ve stalled
in our human exploration of space. We are sending rovers to Mars, but how far away are we
from sending manned missions? And what are the limitations
that keep that from happening? One of those big limitations is power. Just to get from Earth to Mars,
it’s an eight-month journey at a minimum. And when we send a rover, we don’t have to keep
a lot of power during the flight. They don’t breath, and they don’t care
if there are lights on or not. But if we’re sending people
then that becomes a bigger concern. So we need ways to provide
power or electricity for this eight-month journey for people that are traveling
to Mars or other planets. Another great example
are the Voyager spacecrafts. Voyager 1 and 2 were both launched in 1977
and they are still traveling in space. In fact, they are reaching the edge
of our Solar System now. These two with their 37 years in space,
longer than I’ve even been alive, hold the record now
for the longest missions that NASA has been able to support. However, they are powered
by nuclear energy, which is a great thing, except that it’s going to run out
in about five years. So, we won’t receive
any more information back from them. But, if we were able to incorporate
these really large solar arrays, especially if that was included
with a nuclear energy source, then perhaps we could design a mission
that had a 50 or 100 year lifetime. And who knows what we might learn then. But to do that, we need to figure out
how we’re going to fit these ever larger solar arrays
into the rockets that we’ll launch then into space. Well, Hannaflex is a great solution. Here, we’ve used principles of origami,
this artistic means of expressing oneself, to create an array
that can fold up in a way that we’ll fit inside of the rockets. We started, of course, in paper, because origami
is naturally a paper model, and when you fold origami your patterns are assuming
a zero thickness material. Paper is thin enough
that that usually works. Although, if you’ve ever
tried to fold a paper I think it’s after seven times,
you can’t fold it in half anymore. You realize that even
with very thin substances thickness becomes an issue. Especially when we’re folding
something like solar panels. You can imagine folding a sheet of iPads. You have these things
that are brittle, that aren’t flexible, unless maybe it’s the iPhone 6+ (Laughter) and can easily crack. So, we have to find a way to accommodate
for thickness and for that inflexibility. We therefore collaborated
with an origami mathematician to modify the folding pattern – the original folding pattern
shown on the left, which maybe doesn’t show up super well,
but it’s just straight lines basically – we modified that
so we could accommodate for thickness, and that is shown on the right. And you see this piecewise curvature, which means,
when the model is all folded up there’s a discrete distance specified
between subsequent layers of panels, so we can essentially fold
these sheets of iPads. This example isn’t
actually a manned spacecraft, but to illustrate why it might be
important to have these larger arrays, let’s assume that this spacecraft
can support one person. So, we’ve got four,
little solar panels on there. It can support one human
aboard the spacecraft. If we want to send more people,
or for a longer amount of time, then we need to increase the amount
of solar arrays that are on there. But just adding– – this was really easy
because I did it on Photoshop – but just adding a couple
of extra panels can be costly. In fact, the International
Space Station sent up eight solar arrays on the station, but they sent those up
in several different launches. And each launch costs
10,000 dollars per pound to launch something into space. So, we want to send it up
as compactly as we can. And that brings us to some of the unique benefits
of the Hannaflex design. You can see how it kind of wraps
around the central hub. And that central hub could,
in fact, be the spacecraft itself, which becomes a real convenient way
to avoid wasting space, because any volume
that would have been empty in that folded pattern is now occupied
by the spacecraft itself. A second aspect of this folding pattern
that’s really unique: we start off with a flat sheet
when it’s deployed, but during its launch state
it’s folded up. And you can see
that the panels start to rotate and come up vertical
against the sides of the spacecraft. But, also, we have something that no other folding pattern
or solar array at least currently has, and that’s that we can fix the height
when it’s folded closed. You can see here a video
of how it folds closed – I’ll explain a little bit more
about what that fixed height is – but we’re going to put this
inside of a rocket, and it has a fixed volume of space, and, so, the fact that we can
constrain our height and continue to grow the array
becomes really convenient. So, here is an example of the rocket
we might launch this in. Right here, the second triangle
that begins, that’s what we call
our second ring of the pattern. And with this folding pattern,
we can actually add additional rings, so we can continue
to increase our deployed size, or we’re only minimally increasing
the stowed diameter, and our height isn’t changing at all. So, that fixed volume that we have
in our launched vehicle or our rocket, we can maintain within those parameters. There’s another great–
– and I alluded to it before – another big limitation
of space travel is cost. If it’s going to cost
10,000 dollars per pound, then we’ve got to do these things
as compact and lightweight as possible. And origami provides us
some great solutions for achieving that. Solar panels are one possible way
where we might apply origami, but another one
that I’ll tell you about is a solar sail. We call it a solar sail because it’s a lot
like a sail on a sailboat. The solar sails are using
solar radiation pressure, and this force, just from
the radiation of the sun rays; we can’t feel it here,
because it’s a really small force, but in space if we can put up a large enough sheet,
a large enough sail, then we can use that as an essentially free
and infinite propulsion source. So, the idea would be to fold up
as large an array or sail as we can, and then use this to travel
perhaps beyond the Solar System because the solar radiation pressure
provides a constant acceleration. So, we can continue going forever. Because we want it to be lightweight
in our launch vehicle, we want to use a thin material, and a great candidate material
for this is Mylar, which is the same stuff that those silver birthday balloons
are made from. So, we’d take this big sheet
of silver birthday balloon material, fold it up as small as possible,
stick it inside our rocket, and launch it into space. What we’ve designed so far,
would fold up smaller than a tissue box, but open up to about half the size
of a basketball court, which is a pretty good ratio
of stowed to deployed diameter. But that’s just the beginning. Our objective is
to eventually fly our solar sail with one kilometer square sails, which is a little larger
than Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. So, big. Things like solar sails maybe can take us
beyond our Solar System, and maybe this solar array concept
can be used as a clean energy source for us here on Earth. And those ideas might sound
a little bit science-fictiony, but the work that goes
into turning that fantasy into reality really has benefits for us here on Earth. And that’s what’s exciting for me. Even now when I look up at the night sky,
I am amazed by the immensity of space. And it’s not just about being able
to identify stars, planets, or galaxies. It’s recognizing that we are just
a pinprick in the fabric of the Universe. And there is so much out there
to explore, and discover, and learn. And it’s my hope that each of us,
in our own individual journeys, will recognize
the little bits of inspiration that will help us change the world whether that’s through origami
or something else. And not just for space travel – although, I’m still half-hoping
to be the first woman on the Moon – but in whatever our respective fields are. Thank you. (Applause)

7 thoughts on “Can origami advance space exploration? | Shannon Zirbel | TEDxPeachtree

  1. Sadly solar wind will not get us going forever. It won't make it possible, to reach other stars (or even get close) as the other stars also have solar wind and we can't sail against incoming solar wind.

  2. What about the new Cannae Drive? Must look for updates on that one…. Might we see powered versions of the Voyager probes? Can the solar arrays be combined with the sail structure?

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