Gecko Grippers, 3D Printer, Fire And Meteor Experiments En Route To International Space Station

Late Tuesday night, the Orbital ATK Cygnus launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, headed to the International Space Station loaded with nearly 8,000 pounds of supplies including food, science experiments, a 3D printer, and an experimental adhesive called Gecko Grippers.

In the wake of a couple of failed attempts to send supplies to the International Space Station, their shelves are getting a little bare. To rectify this problem, on Tuesday evening, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral that will deliver an Orbital ATK Cygnus capsule to the ISS on Saturday, loaded with over 7,500 pounds of supplies and food. Among the supplies are materials needed to conduct experiments inside the International Space Station. Among the experiments are the materials needed to set a fire inside the Cygnus capsule once it is unloaded in order to see how fire behaves in space. Also included are so-called Gecko Grippers, an attempt to find a space-friendly adhesive that will not lose its stickiness over time.


According to Gizmag, previous attempts to use Earth-based adhesives, like tape and Velcro, inside the ISS have failed. Tape loses its stickiness fairly easily, and Velcro is difficult to reposition and also tends to release fibers into the air. To combat this problem, scientists looked to geckos, who have the ability to stick to walls or ceilings while easily moving around due to tiny hairs on their feet, says Aaron Parness with Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“Geckos have lots of tiny hairs on their feet that help them to stick to things using Van der Waals force. While we’re specifically interested in space applications, gecko adhesives could one day make their way into your home. One can imagine hanging pictures or flat screen TVs on the wall without having to drill into your wall and when you want to move houses, you simply unstick the adhesive and put it somewhere else.”

Aside from testing out the Gecko Grippers, astronauts inside the ISS will also be tasked with carrying out the first in a series of experiments called the Saffire Experiments. Saffire-1 will begin the series, where scientists will be creating a fire inside the Cygnus capsule to see how fire behaves in space in order to help ensure the safety of all ISS and spacecraft crew from here on out.

Once Cygnus is unloaded and refilled with trash from the International Space Station, it will be detached from the station — sometime in May — and sent back to Earth. When the capsule is a safe distance from the ISS, NASA scientists on Earth will trigger the fire within it by burning a cloth made of fiberglass and cotton inside a box that also holds a camera to observe the spread of the fire, says Gary Ruff, Saffire project manager.

“Saffire is all about gaining a better understanding of how fire behaves in space so NASA can develop better materials, technologies and procedures to reduce crew risk and increase space flight safety.”

Also included in the shipment to the ISS is a visible spectroscopy instrument that will be installed in a window of the International Space Station in order to observe and analyze passing meteors, as well as tubes of simulated regolith — the material that covers celestial bodies such as the moon, the surface of Mars, and asteroids. By studying regolith in the microgravity of space, scientists may better understand its properties and learn how they may anchor to it without worry that it would simply fall apart. According to CBC News, Frank Culbertson, the president of Orbital ATK’s space systems, hinted that there may even be a few Easter surprises on board the capsule for ISS crew.


It is the hope of NASA scientists that by having the crew of the ISS use Gecko Grippers, conduct fire experiments, and observe and analyze meteors and regolith, they will find ways to not only better life aboard the International Space Station but also make it safer for current and future crew members.

[Photo by NASA via Getty Images]