A paper airplane

Towards the end of the month of October, someone in the world will by chance happen to find a paper airplane and to look around for the child who threw it, either to return it to its rightful owner or to tell him or her that “you don’t throw things”, based on the adult’s mood that day. But this adult, however, will not find anyone to blame or to smile at.

Perini Journal

That piece of paper folded in the shape of a Shuttle is indeed a Shuttle. And it was thrown by a forty-five year old Japanese child named Koichi Wakata. This man, from about 350 km above our heads, during a (space)walk around his scantly furnished apartment (that is traveling at 27,743.8 km/h) performed the simple gesture of launching the paper dream of several, very respectable professors of Tokyo University. And those 20 centimeters of humble space engineering will bear the following sentence (written also in the language of the person who picks it up, of course): “This airplane comes directly from the International Space Station. Please return it to the Japanese Association of Paper Airplanes.”


MAYBE IT IS STARTING FROM THIS SUI GENERIS ASSOCIATION THAT WE SHOULD BEGIN TO TELL THE STORY OF AN EXPERIMENT CONDUCTED BY PROFESSOR SHINJI SUZUKI, an engineer that is usually involved in rather more tedious things at the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Tokyo University. It’s called the Japan Origami Airplane Association – a name that confers a sense of greater cultural tradition and charm and gives less the idea of play. Origami means the art of folding (ori) paper (kami) and is a pastime that everyone has contended with at least once. But not everyone reaches the point of considering to found a club for lovers of this art.

Takuo Toda has (and Takuo Toda has also written a book, Paper Airplane, in 2003, on these extremely light plane models). Until, in 1999, he met Professor Suzuki. It cannot be denied that the two had the common passion for flying, so the challenge of launching an origami having a wing span of 3 meters was easy to conceive, face and win together (live on TV, probably during the oriental version of You bet!). When they realized it vaguely resembled a Space Shuttle, the idea dawned on both of them: the bases for the Re-entry Flight project had been set.


PROFESSOR SHINJI TELLS US IN SCIENTIFIC AND ACCURATE TERMS HOW THIS IDEA – WHICH SOUNDS ONLY APPARENTLY EXTRAVAGANT – COULD HAVE PRACTICAL UTILITY for the entire scientific community and hence for the advancement of human knowledge. Designing ultralight aircrafts that can re-enter the earth’s atmosphere without being damaged will supply further details on the atmosphere itself and on the conditions of our planet. Furthermore, it can spur the design of new methods of protecting space vehicles. And certainly it will facilitate children’s approach to science and youngsters’ approach to the culture of design and technology. The professor explains to us that the paper used to make the airplane is common paper which has only been chemically treated to improve resistance to high temperatures and the overall strength of the structure, since it has to withstand a takeoff speed of Mach 20 (twenty times the speed of sound, i.e., almost 7000 m/s). Luckily, it has a surface (very wide) and a weight (very low) that induces the entire origami to reduce its speed gradually: when it is at a height of 80 km, its speed will be about Mach 7 (one-third the takeoff speed). The most complex challenge is to make sure that the airplane does not catch fire like a meteor attempting to eliminate all forms of life on Earth, summarizes engineer Suzuki.

Actually, 200°C are not few for a mere piece of paper!


THE SOLUTION ARRIVED IN 2007: a treatment that makes the paper similar to a sheet of glass, increasing its resistance to fire and water. All that was needed was a wind gallery, a support similar to a mason’s spatula to place inside the airplane, and everything could be proven true and functional. The first supersonic paper airplane (and here Neil Armstrong would have added his famous quote on giant steps)!


A PILOT WAS NEEDED FOR ALL THIS: at the JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (no, that doesn’t sound right somehow; better to call it like they do at the Chōfu headquarters: Uchū-Kōkū-Kenkyū-Kaihatsu-Kikō) there were many, and all of them very good. But between those who were in Houston, Texas, and those who were already aboard the International Space Station, it was difficult to find one available. It will be up to Koichi Wakata, veteran of two NASA missions, to launch the experiment in October of this year. And he will be supported by the positive trial results that the Kashiwa Campus of Tokyo University has conducted on a prototype: on January 17th, 2008, an 8-centimeter long origami plane was successfully tested for ten seconds inside a supersonic tunnel that simulated the speed of Mach 7. Mission accomplished, at least here on the ground.

Shinji Suzuki concludes by auspicating that science will increasingly more often set far-sighted and ambitious objectives, in constantly more original and involving ways. Man investigates in this way, too, and finds out more about himself. •


The facts

The University of Tokyo, in collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Japan Origami Airplane Association, plans to launch a special paper airplane from the International Space Station (ISS). The plane will be reinforced and chemically treated to resist high temperatures and difficult conditions of re-entry inside the earth’s atmosphere and will be launched at the end of October by Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, during a walk around the Shuttle. Conducting the feat on the ground will be Professor Shinji Suzuki.


The numbers

Takeoff height: 350 km

Speed of the ISS: 27,743.8 km/h

Takeoff speed: Mach 20 (about 7000 m/s)

Speed at an 80-km height: Mach 7

Maximum temperature reached during flight: 200 °C

Length of the airplane: 20 cm

Date of the experiment (Re-Entry Flight): October 2008

Login or Register to publish a comment