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Watch astronauts play catch with a gecko-inspired gripper

How do we get a grip in space? Turns out it’s not that easy. Suction grabbers can’t work in a vacuum, and sticky chemical adhesives fail in the extreme temperatures of Earth’s orbit. So engineers are building new kinds of grippers inspired by the bottoms of gecko feet. A gecko’s foot is covered in microscopic hairs that lay flat when pressed against a surface. Added up across millions of these hairs, that increase in surface area lets geckos take advantage of tiny forces of molecular attraction at each point of contact—sending them scrambling up walls with ease. By mimicking those hairs with tiny, silicon wedges, researchers are now creating a gecko grip of their own—and are testing it for space. Training astronauts successfully used gecko-inspired grippers to play catch during the nosedive-induced weightlessness of NASA’s zero-gravity aircraft, the researchers report today in Science Robotics. And miniature grippers were even sent to the International Space Station, where they worked as well as on Earth, remaining stuck to the walls during several weeks of testing. Engineers think the grippers could help automate repair processes currently done by astronauts and may even be useful in future projects to clear up space debris cluttering Earth’s orbit.