Scientists part of Stanford University and NASA designed and tested a set of robotic pincers inspired by geckos which could one day come to help clean up the junk from space.
NASA estimates that there could be well over 500,000 pieces of debris orbiting around Earth. Ones that are also moving at about 17,500 miles per hour. Now, this new robotic gripper should be able to remove junk but without creating new one.
A paper presenting the technology and test results is available in the journal Science Robotics.
Gecko-Inspired Robotic Pincers To Succeed Where Others Failed?
Scientists are already testing quite a number of technologies that should help clean up space junk. However, most of them have one major problem: they are mostly designed according to the conditions here on Earth.
Suction cups, for example, rely on atmospheric pressure, which is non-existent in space. Harpoons, traditional grippers, or even nets require too much force and can actually create more debris and even be dangerous. Sticky substances are also unreliable because they cannot stick due to the cold space temperatures.
So, the scientists behind this new technology turned to geckos and their special feet features. Namely, the animal present microscopic flaps on its feet, which help create an adhesive force. This allows them to climb walls and even vertical surfaces.
The robotic pincers were modeled according to the flaps, which helped create a gripper that does not require that much force or even substances to stick itself to a surface. Elliot Hawkes, a study co-author, explained how these pincers would work.
“I can touch the adhesive pads very gently to a floating object, squeeze the pads toward each other so that they’re locked and then I’m able to move the object around.”
The new gecko-inspired robotic pincers have already been put to the test. They passed through several multiple zero gravity environments. A small scale version of the technology has already been launched and reached the International Space Center (ISS). This will be tested aboard the station, but reports state that it has yet to be sent outside, in the vacuum of space.
The study team will now look to create a bigger, more durable model. One capable of withstanding extreme space temperatures and also the high radiation levels registered outside the ISS.
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