aThe gecko may have long seemed like a funny little nimal, but recent science has used the critter in an anything but funny way. To make robots. Specifically, gecko inspired robots that stick in vacuum to the always in need of care outer walls of the International Space Station.
Recently, the two Russian astronauts onboard the ISS went out on a spacewalk for the purpose of a quite trivial mission. They had to clean the windows of the station. Together with the recent first ever human harvest in space which yielded some red romaine lettuce leafs, it really seems that the astronauts are really heading towards a self-reliant life, complete with spring cleaning, autumn harvesting, and other domestic tasks, like cleaning up our orbit of space-junk.
To this very purpose, the scientists and engineers of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from Pasadena, California, have for once made a robot that does not propel (as their name would entail), but instead sticks to any and every surface, even in space, where there is effectively no gravitation.
Previously, space walkers made use of magnetic boots to stick to the outer walls of their crafts. Now, the gecko-inspired systems would allow robots and maybe even humans to step into nothingness with far greater ease.
But how does the gecko fit into this interesting equation?
Well, if you didn’t figure it out already, geckos can climb walls. This is due to a very interesting mechanism on their feet that closely resembles that of other creatures, like spiders. Geckos don’t have duct tape on their feet. Instead they have millions of small, minuscule hairs on their feet. These little hairs offer grip: when they are bent, they become sticky.
Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The molecules in the little hairs have an innate magnetic quality. A molecule’s nucleus has electrons orbiting it, yet due to the uneven distribution of these, the molecule itself ends up having a plus and minus, or a positive side and a negative side. When a gecko steps, the hairs bend until the molecules stick to their opposite ones on the surface that the gecko is stepping on. Pretty complicated.
With this newest invention, the scientists want to use a Lemur 3 climbing robot to service the outer walls of the space station, or eventually capture space junk drifting about and thus clean up the Earth’s orbit.
Image source: space.com