Stanford Engineers Design Robot To Clean Space Debris

First Posted: Jun 29, 2017 06:59 AM EDT

There are about half a million human-made debris floating around in space, many of which are orbiting our planet at speeds nearly 17,500 miles an hour. While they do not seem to be relevant with regards to life on Earth, they do pose a threat to satellites, space vehicles and the people (astronauts) aboard them.

While it seems like space agencies and companies have been sending rockets up in the orbit for decades, the cleanup seems to be a more pressing challenge. This is because suction cups do not necessarily work in a vacuum. According to Stanford News, sticky substances and tape, for instance, become useless because their chemicals cannot withstand extreme temperature swings. Even magnets cannot cleanup all the debris, because obviously they could only work on metals or other magnetic objects. Other proposed solutions require forceful interactions with the debris, which could be more damaging in space traffic.

To finally clean up the mess, researchers from Stanford University and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed a new robotic gripper to dispose of the debris. The gripper uses adhesives inspired by a common Earth animal -- the gecko.

Geckos, which are known to be skilled climbers, are key to the project. Researchers from NASA and Stanford developed a prototype that can grip objects in space the same way geckos manage to stick to walls. The Verge noted that gecko feet are not actually sticky. However, they just have thousands of microscopic hairs that act as a flexible adhesive. In the same way, the robot has special pads outfitted with thousands of rubber hairs made of silicone. This allows the robot to "grab" debris it is cleaning up.

Stanford and NASA will have to get the gecko gripper tested outside the space station. The current prototype is made of laser-cut plywood and uses rubber bands, which can become brittle in space. However, it is their hope that someday the device could be used to help clean "space trash" and could even become a common adhesive, similar to Velcro.

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