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Fold This! Origami-Inspired Material Could Soften Spacecraft Landings

Future spacecraft and rockets may have softer landings thanks to technology inspired by origami, the Japanese art of folding.

A research team created a paper model of a metamaterial — a highly flexible type of material that can be adapted to different purposes. This metamaterial model could be used not only for spaceflight, but also for cars and other devices that must absorb high impacts. The idea is based on using "folding creases" to lessen any impact forces and instead promote forces that relax stresses in the chain of metamaterials.

"If you were wearing a football helmet made of this material and something hit the helmet, you'd never feel that hit on your head. By the time the energy reaches you, it's no longer pushing. It's pulling," corresponding author Jinkyu Yang, a University of Washington associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, said in a statement.

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A new, origami-inspired design would help soften impact forces for landing rockets or spacecraft. (Image credit: Kiyomi Taguchi/University of Washington)

This new metamaterial model is very similar to origami. Researchers created the paper model by cutting dotted lines into paper, using a laser cutter. Next, they folded the paper along these lines to make a cylindrical structure. At either end of the structure, the scientists glued acrylic caps to connect each cylinder into a chain.

Once 20 cylinders were carefully pasted together, researchers connected one end of the chain to a device that pushed on the chain, creating a reaction. Researchers tracked the motion of the chain using six GoPro cameras, examining the compression wave and tension wave that followed until the cells completed their motions.

A paper model of a chain of origami-inspired metamaterials to soften impact forces. (Image credit: Kiyomi Taguchi/University of Washington)

"The chain composed of the origami cells showed … counterintuitive wave motion: Even though the compressive pushing force from the device started the whole reaction, that force never made it to the other end of the chain," University of Washington researchers said in the statement. "Instead, it was replaced by the tension force that started as the first unit cells returned to normal, and propagated faster and faster down the chain. So the unit cells at the end of the chain only felt the tension force pulling them back."

This all means a potentially softer landing for spacecraft and rockets, but the researchers will need to further test the theory to prove it, according to the statement. Their next step is to try to replicate the paper model with more durable materials.

A paper based on the research was published May 24 in the journal Science Advances. The study was led by Hiromi Yasuda, a postdoctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania who completed this work while pursuing a doctorate at the University of Washington.

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