Space junk poses deadly hazards, but the growing amount of debris that orbit around Earth are not collected because the technologies and means used to collect trash on Earth do not work as well in space. Scientists have turned to nature to deal with this problem.
Geckos' Super Sticky Feet
Geckos are known for their extraordinary feet that allow these reptiles to scale vertical walls and hang upside down. The lizard's plump toes have tiny bristles that produce an electric force strong enough to keep the animals stuck into surfaces.
Gecko-Inspired Space Junk Cleaner
In a work partly funded by NASA, researchers developed a gecko-inspired device that can grab space trash. The robotic pincers successfully snagged objects in experiments conducted in microgravity environment.
The device that mechanical engineer Hao Jiang, from Stanford University, and colleagues developed has gecko-inspired adhesives that can grab objects in space.
What makes these adhesives superior is that they do not lose their stickiness over time the way Velcro and ordinary tape do. It also works in environments marked by extreme temperatures, pressures, and radiation.
Hao and colleagues reported about the robotic gripper in a study published in Science Robotics on June 28.
"This is enabled by (i) space-qualified gecko-inspired dry adhesives that are selectively turned on and off by the application of shear forces, (ii) a load-sharing system that scales small patches of these adhesives to large areas, and (iii) a nonlinear passive wrist that is stiff during manipulation yet compliant when overloaded," the researchers wrote.
Other Potential Applications Of Gecko-Inspired Technology
The gecko-inspired technology has other potential applications besides cleaning up space junk that currently poses threats to satellites and the International Space Station (ISS) that orbit planet Earth.
The researchers said that future research may lead to maintenance robots that are able to conduct inspections and repairs while climbing outside of space telescopes, telecommunications satellite, and the space station.
The technology also appears to have potential uses in deep space human missions and in the development of construction robots in space.
"There are many missions that would benefit from this, like rendezvous and docking and orbital debris mitigation," said Aaron Parness of the Extreme Environment Robotics Group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We could also eventually develop a climbing robot assistant that could crawl around on the spacecraft, doing repairs, filming and checking for defects."
Gecko-Inspired Systems For Astronauts Working At The ISS
NASA scientists have earlier said that a robot with gecko-inspired grippers could easily move around on the surface of the ISS. A gecko system may also pave way for the creation of anchors that can help astronauts quickly and easily attach items to the interior wall of the space station.
"Gecko adhesive grippers could assist robotic mobility on large space assets such as the ISS," NASA said. "In the future, an adhesive gripper may even enable a much smaller spacecraft that could dock to the target at many distinct locations to perform servicing operations, reducing launch and development costs through reduced mass and complexity."