It may look like a circuit board stuck to the ceiling – but this is actually a climbing robot. Stranger still, it is in a vacuum, testing its ability to use dry but sticky gecko-like feet to crawl around an orbiting spacecraft.
The idea is that one day astronauts won't have to risk their lives in daring spacewalks to fix things on a craft's exterior, like they did recently on the International Space Station to repair a cooling system. Instead, they will command swarms of hull-crawling automatons to do the job.
The gecko robot, called Abigaille III, is the work of Michael Henrey and his colleagues at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. To test Abigaille's space flight credentials, Henrey took it to the European Space Agency's labs in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, where it was put through its paces at the extreme temperatures and zero-pressure conditions of space.
Henrey's trick is to use foot pads based on a dry polymer adhesive covered in mushroom-like structures with a large surface area. A dry adhesive was chosen because wet ones would collect dust and release fumes that might damage spacecraft instruments.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, gravity means that climbing robots need to lift several times their own weight if they are to be any use. Abigaille's feet wouldn't get it very far if it had to carry a load, but robots with electrically heated sticky footpads are showing their mettle in these sorts of applications.