Raging winds, harsh, dusty terrain: this isn’t an alien planet, it’s Mount Etna on the Italian island of Sicily.
Experts from the European Space Agency (ESA) and DLR, the German Aerospace Center, have scaled this volcanically active mountain to test some of their latest robotic technology.
The goal of these “Analog-1” tests is to investigate whether astronauts orbiting a space station can control rovers exploring the surfaces of planets below.
Thomas Krueger and his team at the Human Robot Interaction Lab built a rover that uses haptic feedback, so the controller can “feel” everything the rover touches.
“With haptic feedback, you would actually feel what the robot feels,” Krueger said. “So if you move our haptic device and the robot touches an obstacle, it actually feels the touch. And this allows the operator to perform more detailed tasks that aren’t possible without haptic feedback.”
Wandering on Etna ‘like a moon’
To put their creation to the test, scientists staged a live test last week in which the rover was commanded via wireless connectivity from the city of Catania, some 14 miles away.
The rover covered an area of 500 square meters at an altitude of 2,600 m on the slopes of Etna. Mount Etna was selected for its similarities to the lunar surface.
“This is one of the first times we’ve put our robot in a really harsh environment here on Mount Etna. So it’s like the moon, we have a complex stage with the operations center in the background, the astronaut, the time delay in the control center and, in fact, a task that has been prepared by the team,” Krueger said.
“If we master this, we’re really confident that these technologies can be further developed to be space-grade, to be part of the next lunar mission.”
This is not the first time that ESA has simulated this type of remote rover experiment.
In 2019, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, in orbit aboard the International Space Station, controlled a rover in a simulated lunar landscape inside a hangar in the Netherlands.
This time, German astronaut Thomas Reiter controlled the rover from a hotel room in Catania, simulating the international Lunar Gateway station in orbit around the Moon.
ESA’s ESOC mission control center in Germany took on the role of ground control, coordinating interactions between the astronaut and scientists.
“Traditionally, rovers are operated from Earth,” said Kjetil Wormnes, project manager for the experiment.
“With the Lunar Portal placed around the Moon, there is the potential to control them directly with a much smaller time delay. And this opens up new possibilities for things that simply can’t be done or are much more difficult to do from Earth.” . “.
Next stop: a space station in lunar orbit?
NASA plans to put a space station called Gateway into lunar orbit, from which astronauts can descend to the Moon’s surface as part of its Artemis program.
The European Space Agency says it has agreed to provide several modules for NASA’s planned lunar outpost, in exchange for the opportunity to send European astronauts to the lunar orbiter.
NASA aims to use the Gateway as a staging post for missions to the Moon and eventually Mars.
And the team at Mount Etna believes that some future lunar exploration tasks will be carried out by rovers, rather than astronauts.
“It’s certainly less dangerous to send the rover to the surface than it is to send an astronaut. It’s also cheaper. It’s also possible not to take up as much of your time,” Wormnes said.
“Astronauts’ time is extremely valuable, so you can send a rover to the surface, you can let the ground crew do all their planning, let them do all the longer traverses. And you get the astronaut involved when needed to maybe the more complex tasks or things where direct teleoperation, direct control of the robot is more useful”.
The experiment lasted until Friday, July 1.
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