"The system could grapple objects in space that are spinning or tumbling, and would otherwise be hard to target.”
Gecko foot being scientifically inspirational. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Humans are proficient litterbugs; we really can't resist creating piles of trash wherever we go. This talent now extends into outer space, where a growing junkyard of dead satellites, burned-out rocket stages, and other artificial bits and pieces is accumulating in orbit. Recent estimates suggest that upwards of 170 million pebbles of junk are cluttering the space environment, in addition to tens of thousands of larger equipment components.
Potential collisions with this space debris poses a major risk to astronauts and spacecraft, as depicted with vertigo-inducing relish in the 2013 film Gravity. The problem has prompted more active investment in outer space trash collection devices, like the one featured in this new video from Stanford University.
This particular grasping mechanism was developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Stanford's Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Laboratory, which are among several scientific facilities interested in adapting the adhesive superpowers of gecko feet to artificial technologies.
Geckos are truly master-grippers—their feet are covered in arrays of tiny specialized hairs that can conform to clutch a wide variety of surfaces. Likewise, the JPL/Stanford gripper is outfitted in synthetic fibers called "stalks" that culminate in a mushroom-shaped cap that simulates the gecko's firm hold.
"The stickiness of the grippers can be turned on and off, by changing the direction in which you pull the hairs," said Aaron Parness, the project's principal investigator, in a JPL statement.
In both its biological and technological incarnations, this impressive adhesion is produced by so-called "van der Waals forces," which can generate electrostatic attraction by manipulating the distribution of electrons orbiting an atom's nuclei.
"The reliability of van der Waals forces, even in severe environments, makes them particularly useful for space applications," Parness said. "The system could grapple objects in space that are spinning or tumbling, and would otherwise be hard to target."
The newly released video explainer includes footage of the grippers successfully picking up free-floating items of different configurations on a reduced gravity aircraft. It also includes an interesting demonstration of a "Master" and "Slave" robot testing out the device at JPL's Robodome. It is not as BDSM as it sounds.
Hopefully, these prototypes will one day evolve into effective spacefaring garbagemen, committed to keeping the orbital highways clear of robotic roadkill. As Parness points out: "Orbital debris [...] is definitely a problem we're going to have to deal with."
"Our system might one day contribute to a solution."
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