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Japan Plans to Drop Paper Airplane from Space

March 27, 2008

What Shinji Suzuki once considered to be an outrageous idea is beginning to take shape as scientists in Japan are combining their efforts with origami virtuosos to construct a paper airplane they hope to send to space one day.

Suzuki, a professor at Tokyo University’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said experts first confronted him a decade ago about the project.

“It sounded like a simply impossible, crazy idea,” project leader Suzuki said. “I gave it some more thought, and came to think it may not be ridiculous after all, and could very well survive if it comes down extremely slowly.”

Suzuki said the project could be used for future unmanned explorations.

The project could give experts a bundle of information about the efficiency of design of re-entry vehicles or space probes for upper atmospheric exploration, he said.

In early February, a prototype with dimensions of about 2 inches wide and 2.8 inches in length was able to survive Mach 7 speeds and torrid temperatures up to 446 degrees Fahrenheit in a 12-second hypersonic wind tunnel test in Tokyo.

Theoretically, the test implied a possible successful re-entry of a large-scale paper airplane into the Earth’s atmosphere, said Osamu Imamura, who works with Suzuki.

“Paper planes are extremely light so they slow down when the air is thin and can gradually descend,” said Shinji Suzuki, a professor of aerospace engineering.

The paper used on the craft is made of sugar cane fibers that are resistant to heat, wind and water.

Takuo Toda, the head of the Japan Origami Airplane Association, had the idea of sending a paper airplane into space since NASA launched its first space shuttle Enterprise in 1977. Enterprise, which flew without an engine or heat shield, was used to perform test flights in the atmosphere.

“Then I thought, perhaps I could someday have it fly back to earth from space,” Toda said. “Nobody took it seriously, saying it would burn instantly.”

The project has intrigued the scientific community in Japan.

“You may think it’s impossible, but we scientists are all extremely interested. I think it’s a great experiment,” said Miyazaki, the Nihon University engineer.

“No matter how it turns out, a paper craft flight from space would tell us many things,” Miyazaki said. “The fact that a paper shuttle has endured the harsh environment in the lab tests also provides valuable data for future aerospace technology.”

The biggest obstacles faced by the team are determining a way to track the craft or even where it may land.

Yasuyuki Miyazaki, an aerospace engineer at Nihon University who is not involved in the project, said, depending on the angle of re-entry, the crafts might not return to Earth at all.

Some things “have to be learned simply by trying them out,” Suzuki said.

So far, the project has received no outside funding, relying instead on paper donated by the origami association and Suzuki’s access to Tokyo University equipment.

“It’s going to be the space version of a message in a bottle. It will be great if someone picks one up,” Suzuki said.

“We are thinking of writing messages on the planes saying ‘if found, please contact us’ in a couple of languages.”

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