Sunday, August 24, 2014

Paper Made Space Vehicles: The Future of Space Exploration?

It might sound like an over-wrought April Fool’s Joke but aerospace engineers in Japan has already considering for a few years now the viability of paper made space vehicles – will it be the future of space exploration? 

By: Ringo Bones 

University of Tokyo aerospace engineer Shinji Suzuki has been “toying” with the idea of an origami paper airplane as a reentry vehicle for a number of years already. The concept was originally envisioned by Takuo Toda, president of the Origami Paper Airplane Association of Japan who asked Suzuki a few years ago to study the possibility of a paper airplane reentering the Earth’s atmosphere from orbital space. 

At first many aerospace engineers thought that a paper airplane would certainly burn up as it reenters the Earth’s atmosphere from Earth’s orbit says Suzuki. Objects returning from space begin their atmospheric reentry at speeds of Mach 20. By the time a typical space vehicle – like NASA’s Space Shuttle or the Russian Soyuz Reentry Vehicle – drops to an altitude of 37 miles, temperatures of the crafts’ leading edges can reach as high as 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit. But a much lighter paper-made aerodynamically shaped reentry vehicle can be made to slow down to Mach 6 earlier in its descent maneuver at altitudes of 62 miles up or so where the air is much thinner. As a result, aerodynamic heating would be much reduced to a degree much cooler than that experienced by the NASA’s Space Shuttle. 

Suzuki knew a method / technique developed by a small Japanese company to coat paper with a kind of glass that would increase its heat resistance while still allowing it to be folded easily. Nature is also providing clues that paper-made reentry vehicles might be a viable concept. Some number of meteorites rich in organic compounds – like the Ivuna and Orgveil Meteorites - managed to land on the Earth’s surface with their “delicate cargo” intact given that some of these amino-acid compounds can be destroyed above the boiling point of water – i.e. 100 degrees Celsius or 212 degrees Fahrenheit.