NASA's Gecko Adhesive Can Cling on in the Vacuum of Space

By Chris Mills on at

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is working on many important pieces of technology, but perhaps none are more significant than the gecko-inspired tech that could one day be better than gaffer tape.

Conventional tapes that we use may seem magical, but they have flaws: the adhesive loses its tackiness after a few uses, rendering it virtually useless.

To try and fix this flaw, NASA has been looking to the animal kingdom. Geckos can climb up things using a different approach: they use tiny hairs on the bottom of their feet, which cling to walls and provide enough stickiness. It relies on something called van der Waals force, which NASA explains:

A slight electrical field is created because electrons orbiting the nuclei of atoms are not evenly spaced, so there are positive and negative sides to a neutral molecule. The positively charged part of a molecule attracts the negatively charged part of its neighbour, resulting in “stickiness”. Even in extreme temperature, pressure and radiation conditions, these forces persist.

A van der Waals material doesn’t leave any residue, like tape would, and doesn’t require a mating surface like Velcro. That makes it perfect for use on the Space Station, where every gram counts. The applications are numerous: in addition to anchors for astronauts (currently in development), the gecko-like material could also equip robots to crawl around the outside of the Space Station. Just imagine how different Gravity would have been if we made this 10 years earlier. [NASA]