NASA regularly controls its robot explorers, sent to distant parts of the Solar System, from comfortable offices here on Earth. So it might seem that allowing astronauts in low-Earth orbit to control a robot on the Earth’s surface is not exactly a step forward. But that would be an incorrect assumption. For the first time ever, astronauts in space have controlled a robot on a planetary surface. In this case, astronauts stationed on board the International Space Station controlled robots located on Earth.
The Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA’s Ames Research Center has conducted two tests of its new Surface Telerobotics exploration concept. The central idea is that astronauts in orbit of another world, or stationed on its surface, could control robotic telepresence units elsewhere on the surface that could allow the astronauts to expand their exploratory abilities beyond places where they may personally visit. These robotic units could scout out areas that might not warrant a full human presence, or areas that are too dangerous for humans to go.
“The initial test was notable for achieving a number of firsts for NASA and the field of human-robotic exploration,” said Terry Fong, Human Exploration Telerobotics project manager and director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA’s Ames Research Center, which designed and manages the tests. “Specifically, this project represents the first fully-interactive remote operation of a planetary rover by an astronaut in space.”
The Ames group conducted two tests, the first on June 17 with Expedition 36 Flight Engineer Chris Cassidy aboard the International Space Station. Engineer Cassidy controlled a K10 planetary rover—a four-wheel-drive, 220-pound, 4.5-feet-tall robot—around the Roverscape test area at Ames. Cassidy controlled the robot for over three hours.
The next test was conducted on July 26 with ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano. Flight Engineer Parmitano used the K10 rover to deploy a Kapton film-based radio antenna.
The July 26 test illustrates one of the proposed applications of the system. Deploying a radio telescope on the Moon’s far side would allow astronomical observations to be conducted free of the radio noise that pervades Earth and near-Earth space. The Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research (LUNAR), based at the University of Colorado, Boulder, developed that mission concept. In this mission concept, astronauts would control the robots from the Earth-Moon L2 point.
“Whereas it is common practice in undersea exploration to use a joystick and have direct control of remote submarines, the K10 robots are more intelligent,” said Fong. “Astronauts interact with the robots at a higher level, telling them where to go, and then the robot itself independently and intelligently figures out how to safely get there.”
NASA will conduct another test of the system in August, during which astronauts and engineers will inspect the radio antenna Engineer Parmitano deployed.
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