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In many sci-fi settings magnetic boots are used to help astronauts walk in microgravity. However, not all materials are ferromagnetic. Titanium, aluminum, the most form of carbon and silica can not be magnetized. And these would make up the surface of the most spaceships and asteroids. (except nickel-iron ones.)

What alternative technologies are possible, which could quickly grip and release various surfaces?

Futuristic technologies (like nano-arms gripping on microscopic surface irregularities) are allowed, but nothing, which explicitly violates known physical laws. (like paragravity)

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    $\begingroup$ Well, all I can say is that vacuum seal and how flies and other insects walk up walls - would not work on dusty surface on asteroids… $\endgroup$ – Jan Ivan Apr 4 '17 at 7:14
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    $\begingroup$ Which surfaces? Inside & artificial? Outside & artifical? Outside & natural? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Apr 4 '17 at 7:29
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch First inside and outside artificial, then asteroids and other natural objects which don't have the necessary gravity. $\endgroup$ – b.Lorenz Apr 4 '17 at 10:42
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Inside? Velcro. However that's not what you're asking. I would say much like a Gecko or spider. There's actually technology out there that creates a velcro like material based on gecko feet.

Still as Jan Ivan mentions in the comment under your post, this only works on relatively smooth surfaces. I think you need a fundamentally altenative technique there. Asteroids are rough and dusty. Your nano-arm gripping should work better there with plenty of surface irregularities.

Now this could be combined in one sole by alternating strips of either material. Might show more wear and tear then neccesary but would give you flexibility.

Alternatively do away with the boots as a whole. I mean wear boots in space but don't try to make them stick to anything. Go for another tool like a mountaineering pick, But instead of mainly having a sharp point give one end a smooth surface adhesion ability and the other for rougher surfaces.

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Keep the mag-boot premise, but on surfaces that are not necessarily ferromagnetic, line them with coils that can generate the magnetic field on command. Paint pathways on the surface of the ship to indicate where to put your feet.

Being able to turn on and turn off the magnetic fields gives you a convenient way to get rid of a troublesome character with a creative malfunction, too >:). Oops, I reversed the polarity. so sorry!

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  • $\begingroup$ Lol, like the idea of the magstrips being used to creatively remove a character, but what if they needed to get to tech that wasn't near any magstrips? Or asteroid damages the tech and the coil so you can't get close? $\endgroup$ – Garrett Gaddy Apr 4 '17 at 14:18
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    $\begingroup$ Well, then your protagonist needs to be really careful with his umbilical line and handholds :). I can't think of any well designed ship not having some kind backup method to get to mission critical equipment, even on the outside of a spaceship. Maybe a ferromagnetic laminate on the path where the coils wouldn't go. best of both worlds there. Also, you could also have backup EVA suits with jets. Kill acceleration so everything is moving at the same speed, then get in a free suit with jets in order to get to problem points $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Apr 4 '17 at 17:05
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It might be simpler to not think of "walking" in space the way we think of walking on Earth. A tether system much like that used in climbing or rappelling would be easy to implement on both artificial surfaces (carabiners with lines and pulleys) and natural ones (embedding cleats into the rock surface, or using magnetic ones where applicable). Without gravity, there is no real sense of "up" and "down", and it's far simpler to scale along a surface. Think Ender's Game - down is what you decide it is.

If you really want to be able to walk "upright" on a surface, a set of deployable cleats in the sole or around the perimeter of the boot could work. You would only need to set (via controls on the spacesuit?) the surface type - suction for smooth, hard, and relatively flat surfaces, magnetic for magnetic ones, penetrating cleats for rocky or dusty surfaces.

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Molecular bonding system in the soles, operated through foot action. The boots would bond at a molecular level with the surface they are touching, with a release mechanism operated by pressure from the toes.

The mechanism to undo the bond could be waves of some sort sent down into the soles to release the bond.

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Okay, I'll take a stab at it.

Inside/Outside Artificial

Well, if you built it, why can't you add the tech to let them move around in it? Things like a grid with boot clamps that slide around on a track, make it motorized and there you go, in micro-gravity you wouldn't have too much trouble staying up in place, and if you needed to step off to reach some tech, it also has a built-in tether.

Natural Surfaces

The simplest solution would be timed release clamps based on muscular movement in a suit. Sensors would detect the lifting of the leg and the clamp would release, letting you move the leg into position before it clamps down again. A failsafe could be put in place for complete zero-g or near zero-g environments where the clamp won't release if the other isn't clamped on correctly or at all.

(Sorry, no space jumps for you John Carter)

Other Answers

Other people have given answers (including you @b.Lorenz) with the micro-grip arms or cleats, and I figured I'd mention it since it just gave me and idea. Compose the boots of Nano-Tech.

Hear me out here, nano-tech is small enough to be air tight for standard spacewalk boots and if extra is stored in the soles, the soles would grow and mold around irregularities in rock and stone, and as far as I know, metals would still have micro irregularities large enough for the tech to stick to artificial surfaces. If you're worried about the grip strength per square inch of surface area on artificial materials, the tech can grow out beyond the edge of the boots to make a larger grip surface (think expanding, kinda-magnetic snowshoes.)

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the second part, but I disagree with the first. You can not heavily surround your spaceship hull with motorized clamps. It is too much weight penalty. (And by military vessels, radar cross section and armor penalty too.) And it is hard to ensure that every manufacturer uses the same, compatible system. $\endgroup$ – b.Lorenz Apr 4 '17 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with you there, but it doesn't have to particularly be EVERYWHERE, just along the general skeleton of the ship, like I said tethers are still an option for getting to things out of reach, and I'm just spitballing for the most part anyway XD as long as you find something that helps I'm okay with you not liking some of it. $\endgroup$ – Garrett Gaddy Apr 4 '17 at 14:50
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I could suggest ultrasonic welding boots!

About Ultrasonic welding

This welding technique has a minimal damage on the surfaces, and can weld together or eventually release all type of materials

If the damage is still an issue and as it is science fiction, you could even make it so the welding happen at the atomic level and therefore display no damages.

In reality a surface would be never flat enough and always contains impurity to allow such atomic level welding, this is why I add it as side note. (It can also bring a topic for an event in your story)

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This is a totally separate approach to my previous answer.

Use a Web of non radar reflective material anchored to several points around the hull. Then build a smallish crawler that can hold tools, anchor your erstwhile space walker, and maneuver around the hull using the webwork. The anchors should be spaced around the hull in an even manner and have quick disconnect points all around so that repairing and replacing the webwork in case of damage is fairly easy.

Repairing damage to the outside of the ship would start with repairing enough webbing to get close to the damage, and then use the crawler as a mobile base to effect repairs.

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