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Wednesday April 2, 2008

Origami in space

Japanese scientists and origami masters aim to launch a craft from space made in the tradition of Japan’s ancient art of paper folding.

JAPANESE scientists and origami masters hope to launch a paper airplane from space and learn from its trip back to Earth.

It’s no joke. A prototype passed a durability test in a wind tunnel in February, Japan’s space agency adopted it last week for feasibility studies, and a well-known astronaut is interested in participating.

A successful flight from space by an origami plane could have far-reaching implications for the design of re-entry vehicles or space probes for upper atmospheric exploration, said project leader Shinji Suzuki, a professor at Tokyo University’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Tokyo University assistant professor Osamu Imamura checking a paper spacecraft before a wind tunnel durability test at a aboratory in Kashiwa near Tokyo.

In a test outside Tokyo in early February, a 7cm-long and 5cm-wide prototype survived Mach 7 speeds and broiling temperatures up to 230°C in a hypersonic wind tunnel – conditions meant to approximate what the plane would face entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Having survived the 12-second test with no major damage or burns, the tiny plane theoretically could get back to Earth because re-entry from outer space involves passing through several layers that last only a few seconds each, said Osamu Imamura, a scientist who works with Suzuki.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, accepted the feasibility studies and promised up to US$300,000 (RM960,000) in funding per year over three years.

At this point, the proposal faces just one challenge, but it’s a potentially crippling one: There is no way to track the paper craft or predict when or where they may land.

Critics say that makes the test pointless. Yasuyuki Miyazaki, an aerospace engineer at Nihon University who is not involved in the project, said the paper shuttles might not come back at all, depending on the angle at which they enter the atmosphere.

Suzuki said many things about science “have to be learned simply by trying them out.”

A 7cm long and 5cm wide space shuttle-spaced paper plane undergoing a durability test.

Takuo Toda, the head of the Japan Origami Airplane Association, had nursed the idea of flying a shuttle-shaped paper plane since Nasa in 1977 launched its first space shuttle Enterprise, a craft without an engine or heat shield that was used to perform test flights in the atmosphere.

He spent 18 months figuring out how to fold a perfect origami spacecraft from a plain sheet of paper – without cutting, stitching or taping it – and tested hundreds of designs in the process.

“Then I thought, perhaps I could someday have it fly back to Earth from space,” Toda said. “Nobody took it seriously, saying it would burn instantly.”

The project has inspired curiosity in the scientific community in Japan.

“You may think it’s impossible, but we scientists are all extremely interested. I think it’s a great experiment,” said Miyazaki, the Nihon University engineer.

“No matter how it turns out, a paper craft flight from space would tell us many things,” Miyazaki said. “The fact that a paper shuttle has endured the harsh environment in the lab tests also provides valuable data for future aerospace technology.”

Suzuki and Toda use origami paper made of sugar cane fibre, and spray a special coating that gives the paper resistance to heat, wind and water onto the paper and then fold it into shuttles about 20cm long and 10cm wide that weigh about 30g. How many shuttles will be released has not been decided.

The pair theorise that with the coating, rounded edges, rounded nose cone and almost no weight, their craft will face very little of the heat-generating friction that causes most damage to vehicles re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

If the plane is found, that will support their theory that the plane’s rounder shape and lightness can reduce air resistance and thus heat. The focus of the experiment would be on future space vehicle designs rather than on tracking their flight patterns.

Astronaut Koichi Wakata, who has expressed personal interest in the project, would throw several origami shuttles into the wake of the international space station, which travels at Mach 20 some 400km above Earth – if the JAXA feasibility studies pan out, Suzuki said.

Takuo Toda, head of japan Origami Airplane Association, folding a space shuttle-shaped paper plane at the Japan Airlines’ facilities in Tokyo.

Findings from the paper shuttles’ flight could be used in developing new lightweight space probes that would study the upper atmosphere, Miyazaki said.

The results also could help in designing a full-scale shuttle that re-enters the atmosphere slowly to reduce fiction and heat, said Suzuki. – AP


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