Researchers Look to Origami-Inspired Structures to Help Reusable Spacecrafts Stick the Landing

The new meta material has a host of applications in spacecraft, safety gear and even in vehicles.

Thanks to companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX the era of the reusable rocket is among us.  Nevertheless, one of the biggest challenges for the reusable rocket is sticking the landing once it has completed its mission. Yet, researchers at the University of Washington may have come up with a method that takes its inspiration from the thousands of year old tradition of origami.

Origami Landings

Properly landing a reusable rocket is no easy task for a series of reasons. Nevertheless, one of the biggest challenges centers around the rocket’s legs. These rocket legs need to handle the force from the impact of the landing, meaning that the materials used need to be able to actually absorb some of the force as well as soften the blow.

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Engineering to the Rescue. Researchers from the University of Washington have developed a new solution to help reduce the impact forces that not only has applications for spacecraft but could be applied to a series of vehicles that we use today. Their secret engineering form? Origami.

The origami-inspired metamaterial uses the well known “folding creases” to soften the impact forces of an event, creating forces that relax the stressed in the chain. Corresponding author Jinkyu Yang, a UW associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics expressed his excitement regarding the new material stating:

"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.”

"Metamaterials are like Legos. You can make all types of structures by repeating a single type of building block, or unit cell as we call it," he said. "Depending on how you design your unit cell, you can create a material with unique mechanical properties that are unprecedented in nature."

Using the art of origami researchers created a singular particular unit cell. This new unit cell softens the force it feels when someone applies any force on it, but then immediately returns back to its normal shape.

Creating their own origami prototypes, the team of researchers created 20 lined up cells and connected one end to a device that pushed and set off a reaction throughout the chain. Using an everyday GoPro the team tracked the initial compression wave and the following tension wave as the unit cells returned to normal.

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In short, the team looked at how the origami shape can adapt to different forms of resistance. The benefits of using this metamaterial could be huge. As stated by Yang, "Impact is a problem we encounter on a daily basis, and our system provides a completely new approach to reducing its effects.”

"Right now it's made out of paper, but we plan to make it out of a composite material. Ideally, we could optimize the material for each specific application." 

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