Ever fold a dollar bill into a star? Or create a swan from a dinner napkin? Chances are, you’ve seen examples of the Japanese paper-folding art, origami, but you probably wouldn’t have guessed it would be used to create solar panels for space missions. That’s what NASA researchers have done, and they are capturing considerable press attention.

As a high school exchange student in Japan, Brian Trease folded burger wrappers into cranes. Now a mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, Trease has applied origami principles to the design of space bound solar panels. “This is a unique crossover of art, culture, and technology,” said Trease.

Panels used in space missions already incorporate simple folds, collapsing like a fan or an accordion. Trease is interested in more intricately-folded solar panels that are compact, light-weight, and easy to deploy.

Shannon Zirbel, a doctoral student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah (BYU) and Trease collaborated with origami expert Robert Lang and BYU professor Larry Howell to develop a solar array that measures 8.9 feet (2.7 meters) in diameter when folded, and extends to 82 feet (25 meters) across. Their 1/20th-scale tabletop prototype starts out in a flower-shaped form and folds out into a hexagonal shape with a deployed diameter of 4.1 feet (1.25 meters).

One technique that has been used for an origami-inspired solar array is a Miura fold, invented by Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura. When you open the structure, it appears to be divided evenly into a checkerboard of parallelograms. The fold that Trease and colleagues used is not a Miura fold, but rather a combination of different folds.

In a NASA TechBrief, Trease’s explains:

Origami always assumes a zero-thickness material, a paper. Our challenge is to build something that actually has thickness. That pushed us immediately right into the math, and we had to write algorithms and code that allowed us to accommodate the thickness of panels… We developed a nice, robust means of doing that as we were fabricating the solar array. We’re calling it the HanaFlex now. Hana is the Japanese word for “flower.” If you watch this deploy, it actually looks like a flower blooming.

A short video clip of the origami-inspired prototype is available online.

Researchers say origami could be useful one day in utilizing space solar power for Earth-based purposes. Imagine an orbiting power plant that wirelessly beams power down to Earth using microwaves. According to Trease, sending the solar arrays up to space would be easy, because they could all be folded and packed into a single rocket launch, with “no assembly required.”