One day, astronauts on deep space missions may explore the surface of unknown planets remotely — using a rover while they remain in orbit. That concept, though it sounds radically far-off, just got an important dry run.
As we wrote last week, the European Space Agency's robotics team is testing a new rover design that uses force feedback to let astronauts hundreds of miles away control its arms and wheels with extreme precision. The haptic interface allows the astronaut to "feel" what the robot is touching, without actually exposing his or her fragile human body to the conditions on the ground.
The rover, called the Interact Centaur, got its first live test from orbit late yesterday, when a Danish astronaut named Andreas Mogensen fired up the interface from on board the ISS and performed a series of tasks using the Centaur, located in a lab in the Netherlands. Crucially, Mogensen had never even used the joystick-based UI before, which helped researchers understand how intuitive their design would really be.
Mogensen had to use Centaur's robotic arms to pick up a metal rod into a very small hole on a board, which the ESA says had just 1/6th of a millimetre of clearance. The task was designed to replicate the kind of detail-oriented work that traditional robotic arms — those without force feedback — are very bad at.
So how did it go? The ESA called the experiment a "slam dunk," which is a funny choice of words considering that the task was carried out very, very slowly. Mogensen reached the board and plugged in the metal pin within 45 minutes on his first try, but the same process took only ten minutes the second time, the ESA says. Considering how far the signals had to travel, that's pretty damn impressive:
The real challenge was achieving meaningful force feedback despite the distance the signals had to travel: from the Station, hurtling around Earth at 8 km/s, up to satellites almost 36 000 km high and then down to a US ground station in New Mexico, via NASA Houston and then through a transatlantic cable to ESTEC — and back. It added up to a round-trip of more than 144 000 km.
So from the Centaur's fingers to Mogensen's, the signals travelled 89,477.5 miles. You can watch the ESA's video of the test below.
All images and video via the ESA.