Thursday, June 14, 2007

Space Origami

I'm a fan of origami. Call me simple-minded, but there is something satisfying about starting with a flat square of paper and ending up with an adorable stocking (they made great gift tags!) or a pretty flower.

But origami isn't just for stockings and flowers anymore. NASA scientists have recently joined a Tokyo Metropolitan University group in working on an origami-based method for unrolling tethers in space.

Tethers are used in space like child harnesses are used at amusement parks - they keep a child (satellite) in orbit around the parent (space shuttle), no matter what direction the child tries to go in.

The Japanese team has designed a deployer that uses reverse origami - the tether starts out folded and unfolds into a nearly straight line as the top is pulled. At least that's the theory. There are many details left to work out before the deployer is launched in a proof of concept experiment (set for 2009).

In addition to the details of the deployment method, there is some interesting physics that needs to be worked out. NASA researchers were brought in specifically to help the Japanese team figure out how the tether will respond to the Earth's magnetic field (since moving a wire in a magnetic field creates current). They're also investigating how to use the tether for propulsion.

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