Foldable space systems: taking inspiration from the Japanese art of origami

Oxford Space Systems is using origami to help design the next generation of satellites. CEO Mike Lawton discusses how inspiration from an unlikely source led to exciting innovation.

A collapsible space system

I’ve always been fascinated with space

I’ve always been fascinated with space, having grown up on a diet of Star Trek and Star Wars. It was therefore almost inevitable that my first position as a graduate engineer in 1997 was with a company called Space Innovations. I loved the challenge of developing new technology for such a demanding environment, and in 2013, I founded my own company: Oxford Space Systems. We’re working on developing the next generation of deployable space structures like antennae, panels and boom systems

Building these systems, we’ve found that generally, the bigger they are, the more expensive they are to build. And, because every kilogramme costs around £35,000 to launch, we soon learned how important it was that we make our systems as light and compact as they could be. This enables them to fit onto smaller rockets that are cheaper to launch. And we found an answer to this challenge in a most unlikely place.

CEO Mike Lawton holding one of Oxford Space Systems’ deployable space systems
CEO Mike Lawton holding one of Oxford Space Systems’ deployable space systems

Lateral thinking

To work out the best way to fold these space systems to fit inside a launch rocket, we had to ask ourselves: has anyone figured out a really smart way to fold things? The answer was yes – origami experts – and it turns out they’ve been doing it for a really long time.

The challenges we shared turned out to be incredibly similar; origami is mathematically based, lends itself to being analysed and is predictable; qualities which are essential when you’re sending anything into space.

I came across the website of Professor Zhong You, who specialised in structural engineering and origami, one Friday at around 3pm. I called him and introduced myself, before telling him what we were looking to do. His response was overwhelmingly positive and I was invited to visit him the next morning. We didn’t leave his office for four hours that day, spending most of the morning looking around his laboratory. It was like a toyshop and was full of exciting prototypes and fantastic concepts!

Working with Professor You was a great meeting of minds. His work isn’t just in theoretical mathematics. In fact, he works in the opposite way to traditional mathematicians, building structures and prototypes in the real world, before back-filling those concepts with maths.

A foldable space system
A collapsible space system

The next mission for Oxford Space Systems

Right now, we’re working on the challenge of getting folding antennas, which can be up to 12m in diameter, into space. We’re using origami to work out how we can fold these panels without creasing. Because we’re adding thickness to the folds, we’re working with an advanced type of origami because it involves much more complex mathematics – panel ridge origami.

But ultimately, we’re not interested in long-gestation, one-off missions. We’re developing tech that targets constellations – thousands of satellites in space for internet and other services – and I want to make sure that it’s our tech developed in the UK that’s the most contracted presence in these constellations.

You can follow Oxford Space Systems on Twitter here

Update 13.10.17 - winners!

Oxford Space Systems has just won the Start-up of the year award from Barclays High-Growth & Entrepreneur Award 2017.


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