NASA Develops A Gecko-Inspired Robot To Clean Up Space Debris

Posted: Jun 30 2017, 1:05pm CDT | by , Updated: Jun 30 2017, 1:11pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
NASA Develops a Gecko-Inspired Robot to Clean up Space Debris
Close up of the robotic gripper. Credit: Kurt Hickman

Inspired by gecko foot, the robotic gripper could help solve the problem of ever growing space debris

An estimated 50,000 pieces of man-made trash are currently orbiting the Earth. This trash or space junk mostly consists of fragments of nonfunctional spacecrafts, abandoned satellites and lost equipments.

The space debris that has been accumulated from human space exploration over the years is now posing a major threat to future deep space missions. Travelling at up to 28,000 17,500 mph, even a small piece of debris object could damage surface of a satellite or a spacecraft with humans aboard and these catastrophic collisions between fast-moving space debris orbiting the Earth and spacecrafts could hurt economy and even lead to fatalities.

Scientists are looking for solutions to clean up space mess and to avoid potential collisions but they have never succeeded to date. To solve this problem, researchers from Stanford University alongside NASA colleagues have created a robotic gripper that can grab and remove debris from space. The gripper is inspired by gecko – a lizard with sticky hairs that prevent it from falling off vertical surfaces. Similar to a gecko's foot, the robotic gripper also has adhesive flaps that allow it to stick to a surface and won’t damage with repeated use.

“What we’ve developed is a gripper that uses gecko-inspired adhesives,” said co researcher Mark Cutkosky from Stanford. “It’s an outgrowth of work we started about 10 years ago on climbing robots that used adhesives inspired by how geckos stick to walls.”

Researchers have tested their gripper and its smaller versions, inside the lab and under zero gravity experimental spaces, including the International Space Station. In these experiments, the robotic system has shown promising results.

“There are many missions that would benefit from this, like rendezvous and docking and orbital debris mitigation,” said Aaron Parness, group leader of the Extreme Environment Robotics Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We could also eventually develop a climbing robot assistant that could crawl around on the spacecraft, doing repairs, filming and checking for defects.”

The gripper is not a replica of gecko’s foot. The robotic adhesive pads are about 40 micrometers across while a gecko’s are about 200 nanometers – but they work almost the same way as the reptile. The front of gripper contains a grid of adhesive squares and robotic arms that can fold out. The arms can move on either side of the grid like they are going in for a hug, enabling the gripper to hold an object. The grid can stick to flat and curved objects, such as solar panels and cylindrical surfaces. The idea is that the strip will catch the debris floating in space and move it around.

The space junk problem is getting worse every year. Therefore space agencies around the world are experimenting with ways to get rid of space debris. A collision with a small piece of space debris at orbital velocity can create force equivalent to an exploding hand grenade, so the increasing collisions between objects can lead to even more debris in the way.

Next, researchers are hoping to create a much improved version of gecko-inspired robotic gripper that could be deployed outside the space station and hold up to high levels of radiation and extreme temperatures.

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