Spacecraft in virtually all science fiction stories are reusable. They are able to take off, leave the atmosphere of a planet, cruise through space, and then land again without trouble. But that hasn’t been the practical reality, at least not until recently. Because of the huge amount of energy necessary to reach space, the actual spacecraft itself is quite small — everything else is just massive rockets. New designs like the SpaceX Falcon 9 have done a lot to overcome that, but landing is still a challenge. However, new origami-inspired mechanisms developed by University of Washington researchers may help cushion those landings.
Imagine a spacecraft falling straight down towards the ground, and think about the landing gear you’d design to absorb the impact. You’re most likely picturing something like a spring. That will certainly compress to slow the impact, but the stored kinetic energy still needs to go somewhere. Some of the shock would still be transmitted to the spacecraft, and the recoil of the spring would be nearly equal in force to the original impact. The origami structures developed at the University of Washington act in a much more complex way, and disperse the impact through the material instead of into the spacecraft.
In the real world, these could be made from a variety of materials. But the researchers used paper to test the mechanical properties of the origami structures. By using a laser cutter to precisely lay out the fold lines, they were able to create a sophisticated three-dimensional structure from many cells. That structure absorbs impacts by converting compression forces into tension forces. The final cell in the origami chain actually experiences a small pulling force, instead of a crushing force. That is very desirable for spacecraft landing gear, and also for any other application where impacts need to be absorbed. These structures could ultimately be used on drones, or even car bumpers.