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3D origami Turning earwig wings into satellite solar sails

Satellite in front of a planet

Could the humble earwig inspire more efficient satellite and space probes?

(Keystone)

Marrying the principles of origami with 3D printing, scientists have been able to create foldable, spring-loaded structures based on the humble, yet remarkable, earwig wing. Their applications could range from tents to solar sails on space probes.

The earwig wing turns out to be more fascinating than it appears at first glance. It folds together in such a way that it can unfurl at the slightest touch into a flexible yet stable structure, and then fold back together again with minimum effort.

Recreating an earwig wing

Video of earwig wing research

Recreating an earwig wing

Scientists at Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technologyexternal link (ETHZ) and Purdue University in the United States managed to replicate the complex structure of one of nature’s special wings and reproduce it using 3D printers.

The first object they produced was a ‘spring origami gripper’ that self-folds, locks and is then able to grip objects all by itself. This solves an often-infuriating problem with foldable structures that any map user will be familiar with.

“Once you’ve unfolded these things, it’s often impossible to fold them back to their original shape. If, on the other hand, they simply refolded automatically, this would save a lot of hassle,” according to ETHZ’s Jakob Faber.

As well as maps, the researchers believe their breakthrough could be used for a variety of other foldable objects, ranging from tents to solar wings of space probes and satellites that need to unfurl to draw in solar energy.

The findings of the research project have been published in the Scienceexternal link journal.

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