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

Illustration for article titled NASA's Gecko Adhesive Can Cling On in the Vacuum of Space

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 ducttape.


Conventional tapes that we use may seem magical (all hail Lord Ducttape), 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 neighbor, 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.


Contact the author at



Actually it is London dispersion force or “instantaneous induced dipole–induced dipole” force which is a subset of van der Waals forces that causes the adhesion of normally non-polar molecules. A lot of people, even physics professors, just call it van der Waals forces but that is a general term for all inter-molecular forces. They seem to all know what London dispersion is, they just summerize as van der Waals instead. London dispersion is why saterated fats and oils solidify, while the Keesom force (permanent dipole - permanent dipole) is why salts dissolve in water, but both are van der Waal forces.