Scientists hope a robotic gripper inspired by the way gecko lizards cling to surfaces could help put an end to the problem of space debris. Jane Ross reports.
A gecko-inspired robot could put an end to the problem of space debris. More than half a million pieces of space junk are orbiting Earth, according to NASA. They range from defunct satellites to lens covers and copper wire, and pose a hazard to astronauts, spacecraft and satellites. Cleaning them up is challenging in the weightless environment of space -- suction doesn't work in a vacuum and traditional adhesives can't withstand the extreme temperature swings. Scientists at NASA and Stanford University looked at the way gecko lizards cling to surfaces without falling to design a robotic gripper to grab and dispose of the space trash, making space travel safer and freeing up space real estate for satellites. Geckos' feet have microscopic flaps that create a force between the feet and the surface, allowing them to grip walls. The gripper mimics the flaps, and, like a gecko's foot, is only sticky if the flaps are pushed in a specific direction. The researchers tested the gripper in their lab and in zero gravity environments, including the International Space Station. Eventually, researchers hope the gripper can be used outside the space station, to check for defects and make repairs, making it a valuable tool for astronauts as well as a garbage collector for space.