Animated image showing hands opening and closing the starshade origami model

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Imagine trying to photograph a planet from trillions of miles away. Now imagine that planet is in another solar system, where the bright light of its parent star is outshining everything around it. This is what new technology from NASA is trying to do – capture the first images of planets outside our solar system – and you can make your own model of the spacecraft using origami!

Here's a look at two technologies that block starlight to give telescopes a better view of distant Earth-like planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

Scientists have already discovered thousands of planets beyond our solar system. Some of these planets, called exoplanets, are thought to be similar to Earth. We can learn a lot about exoplanets (and we have) with existing technology like spectroscopy, but taking a picture could tell us so much more.

In the same way as we shield our eyes from the glare of the Sun by placing our hand at arm's length in front of our face, this new device, called Starshade, could shield a telescope's camera from the light of a distant star. Flying tens of thousands of kilometers in front of a space telescope, Starshade’s precise design would block light from a star so the telescope might be able to capture an image of the planets around the star. Scientists could then study these exoplanets to learn more about them and even search for signs of life.

When it’s unfurled, the sunflower-shape Starshade is about the size of a baseball diamond! That’s way too big to fit in a rocket, so NASA has developed a way of folding it – like you would origami – for launch. In fact, NASA brought in origami experts to help create the perfect design. Follow their lead and make your own paper origami model of Starshade’s “inner disk optical shield” following the steps below.

Image showing the materials for the Starshade origami activity

Materials

Photograph showing an 11x17 printout of the Starshade Template

1. Print it out

Print a color copy of the Starshade template. The template is formatted to print on 11-by-17 inch paper, which will make for easier folding, but it can also be printed on smaller paper.
Side-by-side images of a person cutting out the Starshade Template and the completely cut out template

2. Cut it out

Carefully cut along the exterior (black) lines to remove the Starshade model.
A series of images showing someone scoring the template with a ballpoint pen and folding the template according to the instructions

3. Score and crease the darker fold lines

Crease each fold, individually, as follows:

  • Blue lines are mountain folds that point up, as viewed from the printed side of the paper.
  • Orange lines (which make up the central hexagon) are valley folds that point down.

You may use a tool – like a stylus, retracted mechanical pencil, or empty ballpoint pen – to lightly score the fold lines for easier creasing. Be careful not to tear the paper.

4. Score and crease the lighter fold lines (optional)

The minor fold lines, printed in lighter colors, do not need to be creased; however, creasing them will produce a more satisfying origami.
Series of images showing a person folding the Starshade template into a spiral shape

5. Fold it

After all lines have been creased, carefully fold the major fold lines, moving from the center outwards. The major fold lines will fold 180 degrees. You may hold the central hexagon flat while rotating it, gathering the folds in a spiral wrap.
Side-by-side images showing the inside and bottom of the tightly wrapped Starshade model

6. Stow it for launch

This folded model represents the Starshade inner disk optical shield when it’s stowed for launch. The real Starshade would be inside a cylindrical deployment device and wrapped with the 24 petals that make up part of the shield.
Animated graphic of the Starshade opening up in space alongside a space telescope

7. Unfurl it

Build a model of a space telescope (or use an empty tube or cylinder) and couple it with your Starshade model to exhibit how the whole system will work! Hold a pretend launch for your dual spacecraft and then unfurl your model to represent Starshade in space, being used to block the light from a distant star so a space telescope can directly observe exoplanets!

CAUTION: Do NOT use your Starshade model to attempt to block the light of the Sun!