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NASA Has New Gecko Bots That Can Climb Anything

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NASA’s done a lot of cool things. Y’know, going to the moon, launching probes outside of our solar system, and playing a huge role in the construction of the International Space Station. Now the association has turned their focus towards… gecko-bots?That might sound weird, but it makes a lot of sense when you start to think about it. Space is really hard to move about it. Whether you’re trying to maneuver around on alien words, climb vertical surfaces, or even just anchor yourself to an asteroid or a space station, you’re going to need some help.According to WIRED, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory have taken inspiration for insects and geckos to create robots that can deal with just about any surface.Jaako Karras, a robotics engineer at the JPL says, “Out in zero gravity, even pushing tape against surfaces is difficult.” And that makes sense. Without any friction from the air, or gravity to hold you down, any force can push you away from whatever it is you’re working on.“If you got out there and wanted to do some sort of sampling and just started drilling, you’re more likely to spin about the drill bit than the drill bit into the surface,” Karras told WIRED.

As you may have noticed from like… being alive on Earth, for a ton of animals have found solutions to that problem. Geckos can climb straight up walls thanks to tiny little hairs on their feet. These hairs make use of van der Waals forces between the molecules (yeah, geckos use molecular-scale chemistry) to stick to walls. NASA took that as an inspiration and tried to mimic the approach.

The result is a gecko adhesive, ideal for smoother surfaces. It’s already being tested on the ISS. Astronauts have used it to anchor objects inside the station. The adhesive could replace Velcro which releases lots of fine debris every time you pull it apart — and that’s bad for a delicate, multi-billion dollar space station. Even better is that the gecko adhesive will only stick in one direction. Like real geckos which aren’t locked to a surface once they’ve attached themselves, the adhesive comes off pretty easily — just apply force in the right way, and you’re free.

Rough surfaces are a little bit trickier, however. While geckos can climb up just about anything without any issues, JPL’s gecko adhesive isn’t quite as versatile. Researchers responded with “microspine grippers.” These are also taken from nature — in this case from insects. Many insects have sharp spines that will naturally hook into the micropits on rougher surfaces. NASA took the idea and have attached these grippers onto robots that use either large legs that could help them scale Martian cliffs in the future and on wheels for smaller bots.

The microspine grippers haven’t been tested in space just yet, and that day may be some ways off. When we do take this new tech to the planets and asteroids of our solar system, we’ll be ready.

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