Whizzing around the Earth at speeds up to 17,500 MPH are half a million pieces of space junk, according to NASA–and that was in 2013. Although we don’t like to litter up our streets, our orbit is chock full of space trash, and it is high time for a tidying session.
Luckily, researchers at Stanford and NASA’s Jet Propulsion lab are creating a space robot that is inspired by geckos to grip all sorts of shapes of space debris to help clean up our skies. Although it seems simple enough at first glance, Stanford brings up a very valid point–magnets only work on magnetic materials and suction cups don’t work in a vacuum like space. Plus, normal sticky stuff like tape can be unreliable in the extreme conditions of space including temperature and the fact that it’s really, really difficult to push on something in space which is what lets traditional adhesives stick to things on Earth.
Instead, the researchers are using grippers that function more like a gecko’s feet which create a Van der Waals force between their feet and the surface their climbing on thanks to tiny microscopic flaps, according to Stanford News.
The team has already tested their gecko space robot in zero gravity on smooth objects upwards of 800lbs, and with great success so far.
The gecko robot is reusable, uses a load-sharing pulley system and takes into account special space-specific conditions such as the need to grip objects without disturbing them which can make them tumble out of control, according to Popular Science.
All of this is important as humanity begins to venture more and more frequently into space. Space debris is not just unsightly and disrespectful to nature, it is also dangerous and poses great threats to astronauts. Like The Verge explains, if we let space debris get too out of control, it may not be safe to travel into space anymore because we won’t be able to get past our orbit.
Too much space junk can also create something called the Kessler Syndrome, in which a chain reaction of space collisions start destroying all kinds of stuff in orbit creating more and more (and more) debris.
This team of researcher is doing humanity and our future progeny a great service by helping us get our space trash problem under control before it’s too late.
The original paper can be found in Science Robotics here.