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Astronauts to control Earthbound rover from ISS

Image credit: nasa

Scientists aboard the ISS are to remotely control a lunar robot on Earth, in an experiment to study the viability of exploring other planets and moons from orbit.

The experiment, known as ANALOG-1, will investigate whether station crews, earthbound scientists and new tools can come together to guide a rover on a simulated lunar mission.

Historically, rovers exploring other planets have been controlled with preprogramed software with additional commands sent by scientists from Earth that take long periods of time to reach the robots. These approaches make it difficult to work quickly and adapt to unexpected situations. For example, Nasa lost contact with its Mars Rover Opportunity last year when its solar panels were blocked by an unexpected dust storm. Its sister rover, Curiosity (pictured above) has been active on Mars since it landed in 2012.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) William Carey, principal investigator for ANALOG-1 said: “Space is such a harsh place for humans and machines. Future exploration of the solar system may involve sending robotic explorers to test the waters on uncharted planets before sending humans.”

With a nearby astronaut at the rover’s controls, scientists could more efficiently explore a planned target, take advantage of a surprise opportunity or rapidly manage a problem.

“A number of space agencies have looked at such a scenario for the exploration of planetary bodies - particularly for Mars,” Carey added. “The approach could greatly increase the scientific return on those missions, as well as offer a way to avoid potential contamination from humans landing on the surface before we can answer questions about existing or previous life on Mars.”

During the two-hour experiment, astronaut Luca Parmitano will use a workstation to attempt to command a remote-controlled rover and its arm as it traverses a Moon-like surface near the Dutch town of Noordwijk. Parmitano will drive the robot using a specialised computer system and will be guided by scientists communicating with him from the ground. He will also use a state-of-the-art Sigma 7 “joystick” that will allow the astronaut to sense what the rover’s arm encounters.

“The force feedback enables the operator to feel what the robot feels,” said ESA robotics lead engineer Thomas Krueger. “For example, if the robot touches a fragile object, it measures and transmits information back to the user, who then feels its delicateness on the Sigma 7 joystick. They can then operate the arm more carefully than with a normal joystick.”

Parmitano will use the joystick to direct the robot’s arm to collect samples of rock and soil. Scientists expect he may face additional difficulty on account of how the human body responds to space; microgravity can impair an astronaut’s sense of touch or feel, as well as the ability to track moving objects. Both of these skills are critical in this task.

When the experiment is complete, researchers on the ground will evaluate how well the robotic control systems functioned and examine Parmitano’s ability to operate the rover under the effects of microgravity.

Plans are underway to use remote control robotic arms to carry out operations in dangerous environments such as nuclear decommissioning projects.

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