Researchers from the University of Tokyo have teamed up with members of the Japan Origami Airplane Association to develop a paper aircraft capable of surviving the flight from the International Space Station to the Earth's surface.
The researchers are scheduled to begin testing the strength and heat resistance of an 8 centimeter (3.1 in) long prototype on January 17 in an ultra-high-speed wind tunnel at the University of Tokyo's Okashiwa campus (Chiba prefecture). In the tests, the origami glider -- which is shaped like the Space Shuttle and has been treated to withstand intense heat -- will be subjected to wind speeds of Mach 7, or about 8,600 kilometers (5,300 miles) per hour.
A large spacecraft such as the Space Shuttle can reach speeds of up to Mach 20 (over 15,200 mph) when it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere, and friction with the air heats the outer surface to extreme temperatures. The much lighter origami aircraft, which the researchers claim will come down more slowly, is not expected to burn up on re-entry.
No launch date has been set for the paper spaceplane, but Shinji Suzuki, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Tokyo, is thinking ahead. "We hope the space station crew will write a message of peace on the plane before they launch it," says Suzuki. "We don't know where in the world the plane will land, but we hope that whoever finds it will contact us."