In a few years, the exterior of the International Space Station could be crawling with geckos.
It’s not an alien invasion, or the plot of a low-budget sci-fi movie. The robotic geckos could follow from an experiment NASA launched to the International Space Station on Tuesday aboard an uncrewed Cygnus spacecraft.
The Gecko Gripper devices use tiny artificial hairs that replicate the ones geckos use to climb walls. They are designed to help astronauts to keep track of objects in zero gravity, and enable robots to crawl around a spacecraft to inspect and repair it.
The bots have already been tested on parabolic aircraft flights, where they grabbed and manipulated 10-kilogram and 100-kg objects during 20-second periods of microgravity.
On the ISS trip, astronauts will test the system by attaching it to surfaces inside the space station. They will attach five devices in a range of sizes to 30 surfaces at different angles to check how well they grip. The devices will be left in place anywhere from two weeks to a year.
“Geckos are nature’s most amazing climbers,” says lead researcher Aaron Parness of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. “They go from the floor to the ceiling in 2 seconds. And they can stick to almost anything.”
Geckos feet are not sticky to the touch, but instead use millions of tiny hairs that grip surfaces using charged van der Waals forces. Such hairs give the Gecko Gripper an advantage over the Velcro astronauts now use to secure objects.
Parness also imagines more ambitious purposes. “We can grab satellites to repair them, service them,” he says.
“We can also grab space garbage and try and clear it out of the way. We’re interested here in making robots that could crawl around on the outside of say, the space station, do repair, do inspection.”