The real Wall-E? NASA to use ‘space velcro’-toting robot to clear up Earth’s 500,000 pieces of space junk

If you’ve seen the film Gravity, you’ll know how dangerous so-called “space junk” can be .

And NASA estimates there’s around 500,000 pieces of discarded satellite parts, rocket debris and bits of old spaceships shooting round our planet at speeds of up to 17,500mph.

The increasing problem could have damaging effects on future missions and even current communications equipment. As space around Earth gets more cluttered it becomes increasingly risky to thread crafts through the junk.

NASA has a number of planned research projects in place to try and counter the problem – one of which involves deploying “space velcro” that could snatch up debris from the vacuum.

The space agency based the invention of space velcro on the sticky feet of geckos, which have microscopic flaps on their feet that create an electrostatic charge when they touch a wall.

“What we’ve developed is a gripper that uses gecko-inspired adhesives,” said Mark Cutkosky, a professor of mechanical engineering from Stanford.

“It’s an outgrowth of work we started about 10 years ago on climbing robots that used adhesives inspired by how geckos stick to walls.”

NASA has already loaded its velcro aboard the International Space Station for testing and says the next step is to test it in space itself. Using a grid of velcro squares on robotic arms that can encircle space junk means the clean-up could tackle any shape of space junk.

“There are many missions that would benefit from this, like rendezvous and docking and orbital debris mitigation,” said Dr Aaron Parness, of the Extreme Environment Robotics Group at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“We could also eventually develop a climbing robot assistant that could crawl around on the spacecraft, doing repairs, filming and checking for defects.”

Because of the freezing conditions and high levels of radiation in space, any deployable Wall-E-type robot will have to be able to withstand to the harsh conditions.

A solution to space junk needs to be conceived quickly, as the problem is set to increase.

(Image: Stanford University/Kurt Hickman)

The drop in manufacturing costs of satellites is set to lead to the deployment of hundreds or thousands into space from next year, creating a massive rise in the number of active satellites from the 1,300 currently in use.

But Dr Hugh Lewis, senior lecture in aerospace engineering at the University of Southampton, has warned a 200-year computer simulation has shown the formation of a mega-constellation of orbiting satellites that could create a 50% increase in the number of “catastrophic collisions” between satellites.