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EXCLUSIVE: 'Flat pack' origami satellite concept automatically unfolds in orbit

Joseph Flaig

A screenshot of an Oxford Space Systems video shows the OrigamiSat unfolding in orbit (Credit: Oxford Space Systems)
A screenshot of an Oxford Space Systems video shows the OrigamiSat unfolding in orbit (Credit: Oxford Space Systems)

A revolutionary new satellite design could see fridge-sized units automatically ‘unpack’ into flat structures with huge solar arrays on one side and Earth-facing antennas on the other.

The flat pack-style OrigamiSat concept was exclusively revealed to Professional Engineering by pioneering British satellite technology company Oxford Space Systems (OSS).

The firm, based in the thriving Harwell Science Campus in Oxfordshire, has extensive experience using origami-inspired techniques for foldable, compact satellite technology. Founded in 2013, the company has developed antennas, booms and solar arrays that are folded down before using their stored energy to expand outwards when triggered.

The approach can save significant amounts of room on orbital launches, helping efficiency-chasing companies or researchers save space and money. Until now, however, OSS has just focused on the deployable structures.

“Rather than just confining origami to the deployable structures,” says CEO Mike Lawton, “can we actually apply origami to the satellite bus itself?”

The result of that question is the OrigamiSat, which is the size of a domestic refrigerator when folded. An animation shows two adjacent stacks of satellite panels in orbit, joined at the top and bottom. They unfold from the bottom, the two stacks rapidly becoming an accordion expanding in all directions as the stored energy is released. The stacks extend fully down before the panels swing up to form a flat 24-piece satellite, with a patch-panel antenna on the Earth-facing side and a solar array on the other.

A screenshot of the video showing the unfolded OrigamiSat in orbit (Credit: Oxford Space Systems)

A screenshot of the video showing the unfolded OrigamiSat in orbit (Credit: Oxford Space Systems)

The CEO calls it an “Ikea satellite”, although the deployment of the satellite hundreds of kilometres above the Earth, in the alternating frigid cold and blazing heat of a life-sucking vacuum, looks a lot less stressful than assembling a bookcase in a tight London flat.

The concept builds on work by origami specialist and Oxford professor Zhong You, who has collaborated with OSS on previous work on foldable and deployable structures. 

“It’s always good to see these old techniques being modified and adapted to new, cutting edge applications,” said company co-founder and chief technology officer Dr Juan Reveles.

The British firm hopes that its technology might be included in a so-called ‘mega-constellation’ of satellites in future, and the CEO sees “a great potential growth trajectory” in exploration beyond orbit, so going from exclusively manufacturing deployable structures to focus on entire satellite buses could be the logical step.

“When we start talking about mankind’s ambition to go to Mars and further, beyond the Solar System, all that translates into the need for much larger, more capable antennas,” said Lawton.

The company has filed patent claims for the OrigamiSat concept.

Watch the animated video here.

Professional Engineering magazine will feature Oxford Space Systems in an upcoming story on the UK space sector in Issue 7, 2018.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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