Can origami advance space exploration? | Shannon Zirbel | TEDxPeachtree

Can origami advance space exploration? | Shannon Zirbel | TEDxPeachtree

Good morning.

What a great privilegeit is to be here today.

What I hope that you take awayfrom my presentation is that inspiration cancome 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 homea poster of the Moon from school.

I was fascinated by it.

I wanted to go there.

In fact, from five all the waythrough high school, I wanted to be an astronaut.

It was my goal to be the first womanon the Moon.

And my life plan has beena little bit different since high school, but this project that I'm working on now has given me the opportunityto fulfill that childhood dream and to enjoy that excitementof space exploration.

So, let me tell you a littleabout Hannaflex.

Hannaflex is a solar arraythat would wrap around a spacecraft and be used to powereither that spacecraft or to provide energyas a clean energy source for Earth.

We call it Hannaflexbecause Hanna means 'flower' in Japanese, and of course origamiis the Japanese art of paper folding.

And as you can see, as it enfolds,it kind of looks like a flower.

The solar panelsthat are on the solar array work much like the solar panelsyou might see on a house in areas of high sun.

These solar panels collectenergy from the Sun, convert it into electricity, and that's used, in this case,to heat their pool.

In our case, we might usethese solar panels to enable missions to Mars or beam energy back to Earthby microwave radiation.

The possibilities are really endless.

I grew up loving spaceand wanting to explore it, but I know that's not everyone's dream.

Although I'm willing to betthat there are several people out there who did want to be an astronautat some point during their childhood.

Yes, yes, OK, great.

Regardless of what your childhoodaspirations might have been, the technologies that comeout of space exploration, really benefit our lives here on Earth.

I'll give you a few examples.

First, the health fieldis full of examples of what we call spin-off technologies.

These are things that have been developed because of the research doneto push the boundaries of science and technologyfor space exploration.

So, even though my inner child is really excited aboutthis idea of space exploration, I also get to fulfilla little bit of a higher dream of helping make the world a better place.

What about memoryfrom 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 examplesof things that we might not have if not for space exploration.

>From 1969 to 1972 this was a reallyexciting time for space exploration, especially human exploration of space.

We put six successful missionson the Moon, earning 12 men the enviable distinctionof having walked on the Moon.

The prospect of space travelwas really exciting then, for about those four years.

But today, about the furthest you can travelis 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 wayto Russia just to catch a ride.

So, we've stalledin our human exploration of space.

We are sending rovers to Mars, but how far away are wefrom sending manned missions? And what are the limitationsthat 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 keepa lot of power during the flight.

They don't breath, and they don't careif there are lights on or not.

But if we're sending peoplethen that becomes a bigger concern.

So we need ways to providepower or electricity for this eight-month journey for people that are travelingto Mars or other planets.

Another great exampleare the Voyager spacecrafts.

Voyager 1 and 2 were both launched in 1977and they are still traveling in space.

In fact, they are reaching the edgeof our Solar System now.

These two with their 37 years in space,longer than I've even been alive, hold the record nowfor the longest missions that NASA has been able to support.

However, they are poweredby nuclear energy, which is a great thing, except that it's going to run outin about five years.

So, we won't receive any more information back from them.

But, if we were able to incorporatethese really large solar arrays, especially if that was includedwith a nuclear energy source, then perhaps we could design a missionthat had a 50 or 100 year lifetime.

And who knows what we might learn then.

But to do that, we need to figure outhow we're going to fit these ever larger solar arraysinto 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 arraythat can fold up in a way that we'll fit inside of the rockets.

We started, of course, in paper, because origamiis naturally a paper model, and when you fold origami your patterns are assuminga zero thickness material.

Paper is thin enoughthat that usually works.

Although, if you've evertried to fold a paper I think it's after seven times,you can't fold it in half anymore.

You realize that evenwith very thin substances thickness becomes an issue.

Especially when we're foldingsomething like solar panels.

You can imagine folding a sheet of iPads.

You have these thingsthat 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 accommodatefor thickness and for that inflexibility.

We therefore collaboratedwith an origami mathematician to modify the folding pattern – the original folding patternshown 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 specifiedbetween subsequent layers of panels, so we can essentially foldthese sheets of iPads.

This example isn'tactually a manned spacecraft, but to illustrate why it might beimportant to have these larger arrays, let's assume that this spacecraftcan support one person.

So, we've got four,little solar panels on there.

It can support one humanaboard the spacecraft.

If we want to send more people,or for a longer amount of time, then we need to increase the amountof solar arrays that are on there.

But just adding– – this was really easybecause I did it on Photoshop – but just adding a coupleof extra panels can be costly.

In fact, the InternationalSpace Station sent up eight solar arrays on the station, but they sent those upin several different launches.

And each launch costs10,000 dollars per pound to launch something into space.

So, we want to send it upas compactly as we can.

And that brings us to some of the unique benefitsof the Hannaflex design.

You can see how it kind of wrapsaround the central hub.

And that central hub could,in fact, be the spacecraft itself, which becomes a real convenient wayto avoid wasting space, because any volumethat would have been empty in that folded pattern is now occupiedby the spacecraft itself.

A second aspect of this folding patternthat's really unique: we start off with a flat sheetwhen it's deployed, but during its launch stateit's folded up.

And you can seethat the panels start to rotate and come up verticalagainst the sides of the spacecraft.

But, also, we have something that no other folding patternor solar array at least currently has, and that's that we can fix the heightwhen it's folded closed.

You can see here a videoof how it folds closed – I'll explain a little bit moreabout what that fixed height is – but we're going to put thisinside of a rocket, and it has a fixed volume of space, and, so, the fact that we canconstrain our height and continue to grow the arraybecomes really convenient.

So, here is an example of the rocketwe might launch this in.

Right here, the second trianglethat begins, that's what we callour second ring of the pattern.

And with this folding pattern,we can actually add additional rings, so we can continueto increase our deployed size, or we're only minimally increasingthe stowed diameter, and our height isn't changing at all.

So, that fixed volume that we havein our launched vehicle or our rocket, we can maintain within those parameters.

There's another great— and I alluded to it before – another big limitationof space travel is cost.

If it's going to cost10,000 dollars per pound, then we've got to do these thingsas compact and lightweight as possible.

And origami provides ussome great solutions for achieving that.

Solar panels are one possible waywhere we might apply origami, but another onethat I'll tell you about is a solar sail.

We call it a solar sail because it's a lotlike 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 freeand infinite propulsion source.

So, the idea would be to fold upas large an array or sail as we can, and then use this to travelperhaps beyond the Solar System because the solar radiation pressureprovides a constant acceleration.

So, we can continue going forever.

Because we want it to be lightweightin our launch vehicle, we want to use a thin material, and a great candidate materialfor this is Mylar, which is the same stuff that those silver birthday balloonsare made from.

So, we'd take this big sheetof 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 sizeof a basketball court, which is a pretty good ratioof stowed to deployed diameter.

But that's just the beginning.

Our objective isto eventually fly our solar sail with one kilometer square sails, which is a little largerthan Atlanta's Piedmont Park.

So, big.

Things like solar sails maybe can take usbeyond our Solar System, and maybe this solar array conceptcan be used as a clean energy source for us here on Earth.

And those ideas might sounda little bit science-fictiony, but the work that goesinto 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 ableto identify stars, planets, or galaxies.

It's recognizing that we are justa pinprick in the fabric of the Universe.

And there is so much out thereto explore, and discover, and learn.

And it's my hope that each of us,in our own individual journeys, will recognizethe little bits of inspiration that will help us change the world whether that's through origamior something else.

And not just for space travel – although, I'm still half-hopingto be the first woman on the Moon – but in whatever our respective fields are.

Thank you.

(Applause).

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