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Space Origami Could Pack Big Structures into Tiny Satellites

Oxford Space Systems is developing materials for deployable structures that can fold without damage or creasing.
November 26, 2015, 5:00pm

Mike Lawton wants to make origami out of space architecture—or perhaps it's the other way around.

The founder and CEO of Oxford Space Systems (OSS), a venture capital-backed tech company that is designing hardware for satellites, is convinced that new flexible materials will open the door for lower-cost launches.

OSS is using new, proprietary materials to develop deployable parts for spacecraft. "By deployables, we mean those things that unfurl from a satellite when in orbit—so things like solar panels, boom systems, and antennas," Lawton explained when I met him at London Space Week.

"We can't fly a large parabolic dish in a fixed form on the side of a satellite; it just won't fit in the launcher"

OSS's team includes principal collaborator Zhong You, a professor of engineering science who specialises in origami, and the unfurling is where You comes in. If you fold something just right, you can end up with a very large structure that can launch in a tiny package, such as a small satellite or CubeSat.

Lawton used a reflective antenna as an example. "We can't fly a large parabolic dish in a fixed form on the side of a satellite; it just won't fit in the launcher," he said. The trick is figuring out how to most effectively fold the structure without damaging it or giving it permanent creases, which would affect the antenna's performance.

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The group is currently developing what Lawton calls "shape memory flexible composites" capable of folding and unfolding in this way. At the conference, Lawton also showed a video that demonstrates the unfolding of a mechanical structure for the outer ring of an antenna. He claimed that it had been test-deployed 70 times without jamming, exceeding the company's expectations.

The company is also developing composite materials for applications beyond antennas. Lawton highlighted carbon fibre as a proven material that can survive the temperatures, radiation, and atomic oxygen of space, but that OSS is modifying the material to give it new functions.

"It's the sort of stuff we make tennis racquets and golf clubs out of," he said. "But if you play around with it … you can actually make it do interesting things like roll up." He demonstrated how a length of the usually-rigid material could be deployed from a tight coil into a straight line like a retractable tape measure or slap bracelet.

Another application for their carbon fibre materials is the company's line of "AstroTube" booms, which pack up small but telescope out away from a satellite when it's in orbit. These could be used to attach instruments to a satellite but keep them away from the main spacecraft's electrical interference; the telescopic capability means that the boom can be much longer than the spacecraft itself. Lawton showed a prototype that could extend to two metres from about the size of a matchbox. He said they are looking at embedding materials such as Kevlar and graphene to improve on the material's properties.

The company has only been around since the end of 2013, and it has a ways to go before its materials are used in real applications. However, Lawton said he planned to set an industry record for going from "a blank piece of paper" to flying a prototype within three years. OSS plans to have an AstroTube in orbit this time next year on a CubeSat "roughly the size of a loaf of bread."

Kazakhstan's Institute of Space Technique and Technologies (ISTT) has also already placed an order for one of OSS's booms, which it will use to carry a magnetometer on a 2017 CubeSat mission.

All of this, Lawton hopes, will give them an edge in facing the major challenge of the modern space age: "How can we do things faster, cheaper and lower cost?"