Last week, two ISS cosmonauts spent more than six hours in space to give the orbital laboratory’s windows a new shine and make some routine checks to external hardware. But that may soon change since NASA plans to use geckos-like space robots for such tedious tasks.
NASA engineers explained that the space robots would have grippers that have the same stickiness gecko feet have. Those robots are currently under construction at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
NASA’s JPL team is now working on the “gecko gripper” which may allow robotic inspectors go outside the International Space Station make repairs and even clean its windows if necessary.
The U.S. space agency even posted a video on YouTube detailing the new technology on August 12. JPL engineers hope that gecko-inspired space robots may perform even more tasks when out in the space. They said that the robotic assistants may stick to satellites and try to repair them and even collect the space junk in the lower orbit and clear it out of the way.
Physicists know that gecko feet have a special design that allows the animals stick to surface in a very different way from a man-made adhesive. For instance, a gecko’s foot has countless microscopic hair-like protrusions that exploit a common physics phenomenon called van der Waals interaction.
Whenever Geckos want to stick to a surface, they push their feet down and bend the protrusions. At a subatomic level, the electrons around a molecule’s nucleus charged negatively are attracted to those around them charged positively and the other way around.
The gecko activates this mechanism whenever it bends its ‘hairs’ in a certain manner. That’s how the creature’s fine ‘hairs’ become so sticky.
“This is how the gecko does it, by weighting its feet,”
one of the JPL scientists said.
The next generation of space robots will employ a similar technique. JPL team has already designed a material that has millions of tiny hairs’ that are invisible to the human eye. When the hairs are pushed against a hard-surface they stick to it.
The current version of robotic grippers can carry more than 35 pounds or 16 kilograms, engineers reported. Moreover, the wonder material doesn’t wear out like duct tape does. It maintains its stickiness time and time again. Plus, it should also work under extreme space weather, solar radiation, and pressure.
The JPL team said that they had tested the gripper in zero gravity conditions in their laboratory and in microgravity during jet fighter flights. They also stuck the grippers on Lemur 3, a space robot designed to move around on solar panels and spacecraft parts in the empty space.
Image Source: Science World Report