Orbital debris—it’s more complicated than just junk in space. According to the Orbital Debris Program Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, there are approximately 500,000 pieces of space debris orbiting the Earth. Those include larger objects, like satellites, and much smaller ones, measured down to the size of a marble.
While some of these pieces of junk are tiny—if you’re counting particles smaller than 1 centimeter, the number exceeds 100 million—they can pose a big problem. Because these objects are traveling so fast, even the smallest piece of chipped paint can cause damage to a spacecraft.
The International Space Station (ISS) is heavily shielded, and large orbital debris are tracked by the US Space Surveillance Network, so the ISS can maneuver away from space junk if needed. There have been collisions with satellites, however, as recently as 2009. With so much debris in orbit, scientists have been looking for creative solutions to clean up the junk.
One proposal from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory looks to nature for inspiration: the gecko.
“Geckos are nature’s best climbers,” JPL engineer Aaron Parness said. The nanoscopic hairs on the bottom of geckos’ feet allow them to grip to surfaces. Parness and his team at JPL are experimenting with synthetic hairs that can grip things in the microgravity of space—whether it’s the side of a satellite or a piece of space junk—without the adhesion wearing off, similar to the gecko.
Parness visited the Museum and demonstrated this new technology to our STEM in 30 host, Beth Wilson.