Force of nature: NASA ‘Gecko Gripper’ licks space litter problem (VIDEO)
Scientists have drawn inspiration from the reptile kingdom in an effort to clean up millions of pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth.
A collaborative project between Stanford University and NASA has yielded a contraption called the ‘Gecko Gripper’ which uses a network of adhesive squares to capture manmade projectiles. The action, known as Van der Waals forces, is the same that geckos use to climb sheer surfaces.
The device, which was developed at Stanford University’s Cutkosky Lab after conventional adhesives proved to be no use in a vacuum environment, contains flaps that when moved cause objects to remain stuck to the surface of the gripper.
Its design resembles something a construction worker might use to move windows.
“If I came in and tried to push a pressure-sensitive adhesive onto a floating object, it would drift away,” said Elliot Hawkes, from the University of California, who was involved in the study.
“Instead, I can touch the adhesive pads very gently to a floating object, squeeze the pads toward each other so that they’re locked and then I’m able to move the object around,” he said in a statement on the Stanford University website.
Already the gripper has been tested on the International Space Station, with NASA noting that the device’s pads are reusable for “thousands of cycles without losing their effectiveness, and do not damage the surface, leave residue, or produce fibers.”
It’s estimated that there are 170 million pieces of space junk currently hurtling around the Earth, threatening critical infrastructure such as communications satellites and the International Space Station (ISS).
The US space agency has described “debris mitigation” as an urgent task given that junk flying at super speed around the ISS “poses a risk to human life.”
The Gecko Gripper is now set to be trialed in the harsher environment outside the ISS and Aaron Parness, a design leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, thinks it could potentially be deployed in missions to come.
“There are many missions that would benefit from this, like rendezvous and docking and orbital debris mitigation,” Parness said.
“We could also eventually develop a climbing robot assistant that could crawl around on the spacecraft, doing repairs, filming and checking for defects.”