Gecko inspired robot may help clean up space junk

Gecko feet

Scientists at NASA and Stanford University have teamed up to develop a robot inspired by Gecko that they claim can grasp objects just like the common house lizard. The robot can be utilized in space to clear off space junk, scientists say.

As per the latest information available from NASA, there are more than 50,000 pieces of debris from satellite and rocket launches orbiting Earth. Each of these debris are dangerous as they can collide with existing and new space missions and tear through any structure like the ISS given the right circumstances. This calls for urgent actions by all capable space agencies to come up with ideas or help with existing projects aimed at cleaning up space.

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Stanford have been working in this direction to build a gecko-inspired robot that can help with clearing of this space junk. Geckos have incredibly strong feet. Instead of the suctions cups you might assume them to have, they actually possess microscopic flaps on the underside of their feet. When these are in full contact with any surface, it creates a sort of electrostatic force (Van der Waals force) that keeps them stuck to it.

According to Mark Cutkosky, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford, they have developed a gripper that uses gecko-inspired adhesives. The reason for this is that space is a vacuum, so standard suction cups wouldn’t work to grab debris. An adhesive capable of sticking to objects while also surviving the temperature variations of space would be expensive and hard to produce, and magnets wouldn’t work on all the materials floating around Earth. So a Gecko-inspired device was the only available option.

Just like the Gecko’s feet, Cutkosky’s robot has microscopic flaps (though much larger in proportion to the robot’s size), and operates using gentle pushes in the right direction.

“If I came in and tried to push a pressure-sensitive adhesive onto a floating object, it would drift away,” the paper’s co-author Elliot Hawkes said. “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.”

So far, the robot has been tested in a zero-gravity environment at JPL. There are two working prototypes – one with small grabbing arms and another attached to the floor like a large table. “We had one robot chase the other, catch it and then pull it back toward where we wanted it to go,” Hawkes added. “I think that was definitely an eye-opener, to see how a relatively small patch of our adhesive could pull around a 300 kg robot.”

The prototypes are now being rebuilt using more durable materials, before being shipped off to the International Space Station for further testing.


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