Researchers at Stanford University and NASA in the USA have designed a new kind of robotic gripper to grab and dispose of space debris - as reported in Science Robotics magazine. There are currently around 500,000 pieces of human-made debris whizzing around space, orbiting our planet at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour. It poses a threat to satellites, space vehicles, and astronauts aboard those vehicles.
Because the debris exists in space, tidying up is extremely challenging. Suction cups don't work in a vacuum. Traditional sticky substances, like tape, are largely useless because the chemicals they rely on can't withstand the extreme temperature swings. Magnets only work on objects that are magnetic.
"What we've developed is a gripper that uses gecko-inspired adhesives," explained Mark Cutkosky, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Senior Author of the paper. "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.”
The group tested their gripper, and smaller versions, in their lab and in multiple zero gravity experimental spaces, including the International Space Station. Now the researchers are exploring the idea of using the grippers outside of the station.