The same forces that give gecko feet their uncanny ability to stick to just about anything may soon help scientists collect space trash. Geckos use tiny hairs that exploit electrostatic attractive forces, called van der Waals forces, for temporary adhesion. Now, researchers at JPL are working on gripping tools inspired by the tiny lizards that might one day be used to grab onto objects in space, like debris or defunct satellites.
“The reliability of van der Waals forces, even in severe environments, makes them particularly useful for space applications,” say Aaron Parness, a JPL robotics researcher who is the principal investigator for the grippers. Recent experiments during brief periods of weightlessness on a test flight showed that the grippers could seize a 20-pound cube as it floated, as well as get a firm hold on a researcher wearing a vest made of spacecraft material panels. The current device, made of adhesive pads, is handheld by researchers during tests, but the long-term goal is to integrate the grippers into a robotic arm.