The prototype of Europe's ExoMars rover is about to enter a cave controlled by astronaut Tim Peake from ISS

Tim Peake drives rover through fake Martian cave from space station

Astronaut Tim Peake has explored a fake Martian cave built on the premises of Airbus Defence and Space controlling a prototype Martian rover from the International Space Station.

The first of a kind experiment, which took place in Airbus’s Mars Yard in Stevenage, was a major test of technologies that could one day improve rover operations on remote planets.

While designed to move autonomously, rovers may hit problems in some environments, especially in the dark, where their navigational systems based on visual data might not work perfectly.

"The setup that we have here is kind of representative of the kind of locations that we would love to explore in a future exploration mission on Mars,” said Elie Allois, robotics and missions systems engineer at Airbus Defence and Space, who was in charge of the Stevenage-based control centre.

“We have created a cave here, which is an ideal location, which we would like to explore to find possible traces of life, because they would be protected from the environment.”

The set-up of the experiment was rather complex, Allois said. Tim Peake controlled the rover from the International Space Station orbiting the Earth at an altitude of 400km and speed of some 27,600 km/h, using two laptops to write commands and receive feeds from the rover's cameras.

The signal first travelled to the International Space Station control centre at Nasa’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, from where it was sent to Europe via a control station in Belgium to the main European satellite control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, and to Stevenage.

“For this experiment, we are actually using what is called the Delayed Telemetry Network (DTN) and that is infrastructure that has been put in place so that we can control robotic elements with time synchronisation of the different commands,” said Allois.

“That is to make sure that we are not sending a stop command that would arrive before a fast-forward. We want to make sure that all the commands are received and executed at the right time.”

The delay between Tim Peake sending a command and the rover, dubbed Bridget, receiving it, was on average between one or two seconds, not more than during a transcontinental phone call. Contact with the space station was lost twice during the two-hour experiment, due to the motion of the orbital outpost around the Earth. Tim Peake hit a small problem when the rover got stuck on a large rock.

Bridget is one of the prototypes of the European ExoMars rover that will travel to Mars in 2018 to search for traces of life. Europe’s first attempt to land an object on Mars since the failed Beagle 2, the autonomous rover will use a two-meter drill to extract samples of Martian soil that haven’t been damaged by the harsh environment on the surface.

Technologies developed during the project are already being span-out for applications on Earth including the nuclear and oil exploration industry.

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