Large Area Deployable Space Structures


In space, you need things with big area. Things like solar arrays, or antennas, or solar sails, or mirrors. Any time you want to collect something that comes as some part per unit area (like light from the sun, or drag from an atmosphere), you want to build a structure with very large area to collect that something.

Now you can’t launch this big thing as is; you have to make sure it fits inside the rocket, so you fold it up for launch, and then you unfold it when you get to space (where you have… lots of space to unfold things). This is my job: making better ways of folding and unfolding these structures. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun.

Anyways, I decided to put together a chart of some notable large area deployable space structures that have been sent to space (and some that will be going up in the future). Everything is to scale. And it is a beautiful chart, if I say so myself.

There’s some surprises. Like the biggest single deployable we’ve ever sent up was a 41-meter-diameter balloon. In 1964. That’s bigger than the Millennium Falcon.

Here are the criteria for inclusion on this chart:

  • must be a deployable structure (so at least one dimension must increase after unfolding)
  • must be an independently deployable structures (so putting two ISS solar wings together on the ISS doesn’t count as a bigger deployable)
  • deployed performance must depend on the area (and not just the length; the SRTM mast gets an exception because it’s the longest space mast ever built)

Here’s the full-size image.


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