Origami inspires shape-shifting spacecraft radiator

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Engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre have taken their inspiration from the ancient art of origami to develop a concept for a smart radiator able to regulate its rate of heat loss.

The 3D foldable radiator was inspired by the art of paper folding. Credit: Brigham Young University

Though it is still at an early stage of development, the group claims that the device could provide a compact, light-weight alternative to existing satellite radiators, and would be ideal for Cubesats, the tiny low-cost satellites that are becoming increasingly popular.

The collaborative team behind the technology – which includes researchers from Utah’s Brigham Young University – claim that the device could be actuated by shape memory materials that change shape when exposed to different temperatures.

These shape changes would be used to alter the depth of the radiator’s folds, thereby regulating the rate of heat loss. “Origami allows you to change the depth of these cavities in real time, thereby changing the heat loss from a surface in real time,” explained Brigham Young doctoral student Rydge Mulford

Artist's impression of cubesats orbiting Earth. Credit: ESA

To improve the technology further, NASA technologist Vivek Dwivedi, is now working on the development of a highly emissive coating for the radiator made of vanadium oxide.

Dwivedi claimed that the combination of this new coating technology and the origami-inspired design could lead to huge improvements over traditional satellite radiators, which are typically flat and heavy. “This approach has the potential to be a game-changer in thermal design,” he said. “Our goal is to replace traditional radiators with dynamic ones.”