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Space junk is no match for NASA’s new gecko-inspired space janitor

Stanford engineers design a robotic gripper for cleaning up space debris
It turns out we are the solar system’s worst hotel room guests. In the relatively short period of time we have spent in space, we managed to leave around 500,000 pieces of manmade space junk whizzing about — much of it now orbiting our planet at 17,500 miles per hour.

To help cut down on possibly hazardous collisions between this space junk and useful things like satellites or spacecraft, Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have teamed up to invent a space cleanup tool in the form of a robot gripper, based on the gripping mechanism of the gecko lizard. Think of it like a space-faring Roomba.

“We developed a robotic gripper using gecko-inspired adhesives to grapple space debris,” Hao Jiang, a Ph.D. candidate in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford, told Digital Trends. “Space debris has been growing really rapidly over the past several decades, and there isn’t really any existing technology that has been tested or verified. We are excited to show that our adhesives have the ability to sustain the harsh environments in space and that the gripper is able to grasp as large as 370kg floating objects without disturbing them before attachment or after detachment.”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Jiang said that the team was intrigued by the way geckos use tiny hairs on their feet to stick to surfaces. By default, this material is not sticky but when you put a sheer force on the material, it adheres strongly. This is interesting because it allows something to stick without having to be pressed onto a surface. That is perfect in space, where the likes of conventional suction cups won’t work due to the lack of atmosphere.

The hairs on the team’s robot gripper are approximately 10 times smaller than the ones found on a person’s head. In order to grab a piece of space junk, the idea is that the gripper need only place its pads on an item’s surface. In the lab, it has been tested in multiple zero-gravity experimental spaces, while a smaller version has been put through its paces on the International Space Station.

“Our next steps include adding some tactile sensors to the gripper to monitor the adhesion levels in real time, combining electrostatic adhesion to make the gripper better on rough surfaces, and conducting experiments outside the ISS in space,” Jiang said. “For space debris grappling applications, we are not considering commercialize it, at least for now, but as a regular gripper that can also be used on Earth, we are definitely looking at applying it to industrial robotic manipulation, as well as people’s everyday lives.”

Personally, we are just excited to see the first advertised job for a space janitor. This is one heck of a space-age mop!

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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