The European Space Agency has announced that astronaut Luca Parmitano successfully navigated a rover through an obstacle course to collect a rock sample all the way from the International Space Station. The obstacle course was located in the Netherlands where the test took place on Monday. The ESA developed the technology used to remotely operate rovers from space.
Rovers are a key technology for exploring planets, moons, and even big asteroids. NASA currently has two of its own rovers operating on Mars with plans to launch another soon. Other space agencies and private collectives have worked on creating their own rovers for other future space missions.
These rovers feature a variety of instruments used to study the surface of celestial bodies, as well as armatures, power systems, and communication systems that enable humans to manage them from Earth. Sending commands to a rover and manually controlling its operations in real-time over huge distances are two different things, however.
ESA project manager Kjetil Wormnes explains, ‘We are developing systems for astronauts to work hand-in-hand with robots, to achieve much more than they could on their own. A rover on Mars would have taken weeks to do the same work Luca and the Analog-1 rover did in half an hour.’
Analog-1 is the name of the rover operated as part of this test. The ESA says it took Luca and Analog-1 less than 30 minutes to complete the full examination of the technology from the International Space Station, which is whizzing around Earth at around 28,000km/h.
To help with the control process, the ESA explains that its technology involves ‘force feedback’ that enables the human operator to feel the movements the rover feels. The joystick used to remotely control the rover features six degrees of motion, pairing the rapid thinking and assessment abilities of humans with the distant travel and investigation abilities of the hardware.
In this case, the ISS was meant to simulate the eventual future control of rovers from the planned lunar Gateway and other future space outposts. Additional tests of the system are planned for the near future.