Saturday, August 9, 2014

ESA Astronaut remotely controls Eurobot Rover

Eurobot rover under ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst's control

Looking down from orbit, ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst steered ESA’s Eurobot rover through a series of intricate manoeuvres on the ground yesterday, demonstrating a new space network that could connect astronauts to vehicles on alien worlds.

During an intense 90-minute live link on 7 August, Alex used a dedicated controller laptop on the International Space Station to operate Eurobot, relying on video and data feedback to feed commands from 400 km up, orbiting at 28 000 km/h.

The link was provided by a new network that stores commands when signals are interrupted if direct line of sight with Earth or the surface unit is lost, forwarding them once contact is re-established.

ESA Rover Control Centre

In the future, controlling robots on Mars or the Moon will require a sort of ‘space Internet’ to send telecommands and receive data.

Such networks must also accommodate signal delays across vast distances, considering that astronauts and rovers on Mars will have to be linked with mission controllers on Earth.

Yesterday’s demonstration was the second in a series of experiments under the Meteron project, following the 2012 test by NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, who used an initial version of the network by steering a model rover at ESA’s ESOC operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

“This was the first time Eurobot was controlled from space as part of an experiment to validate communication and operations technologies that will ultimately be used for future human exploration missions,” noted Kim Nergaard, head of Advanced Mission Concepts at ESOC.

'Astronaut' at the controls of the Eurobot Ground Prototype

The Eurobot Ground Prototype (EGP) is a new robotic assistant designed to move around and work on a planet's surface either autonomously or in cooperation with astronauts.

It has a pair of robotic arms with interchangeable tools, force and torque sensors and advanced vision systems, including a 3D camera.

It can also transport an astronaut, who can operate it by simple voice commands or a joystick.

The current prototype is capable of transporting 150 kg, including a suited astronaut. It has four driven wheels and is highly manoeuvrable, with its back wheels steerable over 120°.

Eurobot can be controlled from Earth or from a station located for instance on the International Space Station.

Thales Alenia Space is leading the project under a contract from ESA.

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