At last month’s London Space Week summit, Oxford Space Systems (OSS) introduced what company CEO Mike Lawton refers to as a “new generation of space deployable structures” – things that unfurl from a satellite when in orbit – such as solar panels, boom systems and antennas. Lawton’s company is making these deployable structures with shape memory flexible composites. It makes the structures capable of folding and unfolding like origami.

OSS’s team includes principal collaborator Zhong You, a professor of engineering at Oxford University who specializes in origami. The professor maintains that if a structure is folded just right, it can end up being launched in a tiny package. This is particularly important in an aerospace market that demands smaller, lower-cost launch systems made quicker than ever before.

According to Lawton, the hardest part is figuring out how to effectively fold the structure without damaging it or giving it permanent creases, which would affect the antenna’s performance. He believes the use of composites gives the structures the most strength to achieve that goal. At the conference, Lawton showed a video that demonstrates the unfolding of a mechanical structure for the outer ring of an antenna. He claimed it has been test-deployed 70 times without jamming.

OSS is also developing composite materials for more than just antennas. At the conference, Lawton highlighted carbon fiber as a proven material that can survive the temperatures, radiation, and atomic oxygen of space, but that OSS is adapting the material to give it more functions.

“It’s the sort of stuff we make tennis racquets and golf clubs out of,” Lawton said. “But if you play around with it … you can actually make it do interesting things like roll up.”

The company is also using CFRP to make its line of “AstroTube” booms, which pack up small but extend from a satellite when it’s in orbit. These could be used to attach instruments to a satellite but keep them away from the main spacecraft’s electrical interference. He notes AstroTube booms can be much longer than the spacecraft itself. He added they are looking at using other materials such as Kevlar and graphene to improve on the material’s properties.