Scientists with NASA have developed a robot that's designed to help astronauts in future spacewalks get a grip on rough surfaces such as asteroids and comets.

The automatic gripper can also hold on to overhanging rock surfaces, making it a robotic wall-climbing device that could be used to hold on to Martian cliff faces.

Aaron Parness, an engineer who helped create the technology with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in an interview with CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks that the prototypes were inspired by insects. 

"Insects have lots of directional claws or spikes on their legs, and those opportunistically catch on the rough spots, either on trees or bricks or rock surfaces," Parness explained.

"We use a similar approach. We have lots of sharp claws that are opportunistic. They can stretch and move and rotate relative to one another, so you don't have to predict where the rough spots are going to be."


The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's rock-climbing robot was tested in climbing trials at vertical, overhanging, and inverted angles. Scientists believe it could be used by future astronauts to grip onto asteroid surfaces in zero gravity. (Courtesy NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

The current prototype gripper has 750 "claws." The device is about the size of an adult human hand and can hold about 10 kilograms in Earth's gravity. Parness said it would be much more effective in space.

Parness told host Bob McDonald that first contact is important when it comes to reaching out for a small asteroid in space because of the chance of "tip-off," in which merely touching an object could push it away in zero gravity.

(On mobile? Click here to see the robotic gripper in action.)