Mark A. Philbrick

Here's the dilemma: rockets have only so much space, yet satellite solar panels are much more useful when they're big. The solution? Make them foldable using the ancient art of Japanese origami. Researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have figured out how to one day create an array 8.9 feet in diameter that could unfold to 82 feet wide. A panel that size could generate 250 kilowatts of power, compared to the current maximum of about 14 kilowatts. The 1/20 scale prototype starts as a satellite-friendly cylindrical form and expands to a flat, 4.1 foot circular shape by the application of a single force (see the video below). The research was inspired by a technique called the "Miura fold," originally developed for a Japanese satellite by astrophysicist Koryo Miura. A larger version could one day beam solar energy back to earth, or even power future spacecraft -- especially now that microwave thrusters are feasible.

[Image credit: Mark A. Philbrick/BYU]