Gecko-Inspired Robotic Gripper for Grabbing Space Debris

About 500,000 pieces of human-made debris are orbiting our planet - posing a threat to satellites, space vehicles, and the astronauts aboard those vehicles. Engineers from Stanford University and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have combined gecko-inspired adhesives and a custom robotic gripper to create a device for grabbing space debris. They tested their gripper in multiple zero gravity settings, including the International Space Station. The adhesives have previously been used in climbing robots and were inspired by geckos, which can climb walls because their feet have microscopic flaps that, when in full contact with a surface, create a specific force between the feet and the surface. The new gripper the researchers created has a grid of adhesive squares on the front and arms with thin adhesive strips that can fold out and move toward the middle of the robot from either side. The grid can stick to flat objects, like a solar panel, and the arms can grab curved objects, like a rocket body. The group also designed the gripper to switch between a relaxed and rigid state.