In the mid-1980s, Spider-Man was removed from his usual New York environment and sent into space as part of Marvel Comics’ “Secret Wars” storyline. Jump forward to 2018 and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been researching optimal ways for astronauts to more easily move around in zero or microgravity conditions such as on board the International Space Station. One of their suggestions? That astronauts use spider-inspired web shooters to pull themselves from location to location. See kids, this is why you need to listen in comics class!
“The mechanism is, in fact, quite similar to Spider-Man,” Xin Liu, the arts curator at the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, told Digital Trends. “The device shoots a string out with a magnetic tip. Once the tip is in contact with a steel panel, it secures the attachment due to magnetic forces. Then the device will rewind, like a fishing spoil but reversed, and drag the wearer. Because you are technically weightless, it doesn’t need much torque to pull a person around with such a small device.”
With the promise of more and more astronauts spending extended periods of time in space, solutions like this will become increasingly important. While astronauts like Tim Peake were able to adjust to life in microgravity by finding the best way to push off walls, or crawl using handrails, a device that makes this easier would certainly be welcome.
At present, MIT’s so-called Orbit Weaver device hasn’t been put through its paces in actual orbit. However, Liu had the opportunity to test it out on a parabolic flight, which uses freefall to create the feeling of weightlessness for a fraction of a minute.
“It was effective; I was able to shoot the string and navigate with it,” Liu explained. “But I have to say it was tremendously hard to do just about anything there. It was my first time in zero-G. The weightlessness only lasted around 10 seconds. It gets dizzy fast. I also couldn’t move too fast due to safety protocols in the airplane. Everything we did had to follow federal regulations.”
Liu said that there are no plans to commercialize the technology (which, to be fair, is kind of useless without your own space station). However, she plans to work with others who want to push the technology forward.