While working from a hotel room in Italy, astronaut Thomas Reiter ordered a four-wheeled robot to pick up rocks from the surface of an active volcano on the Sicilian east coast, while role-playing as if he were was in orbit around the Earth. around the moon.
The four-day simulation is part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) preparation for a future mission to the moon, where it plans to land a rover on the lunar surface to collect rock samples. The rover, as part of the upcoming Artemis missions, will be led by a team on Earth, as well as an astronaut on board Moon Gatea planned space station that will orbit the moon.
While not quite the moon, Etna’s volcanic surface served as an analog for the lunar surface. The four-wheel, two-armed Interact rover was modified for the rugged slopes of the volcano and explored the rugged terrain along with two other rovers, Lightweight Rover Units 1 and 2, belonging to the German Space Center. In addition, a stationary lunar lander supplied the rover with Wi-Fi and power, an above-ground drone performed surface mapping, and a centipede-like caterpillar called Scout served as a relay between the Interact rover and the lander. Scout was provided by Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
Over the four days, ESA astronaut Reiter ordered the rover to pick up rocks using controls set up in a hotel room in Sicily. Interact rover was also guided by controllers in a rover control room, which was set up in another hotel room, because the controllers and the astronaut are physically separated from each other during a real mission.
The rover itself was about 14 miles (23 kilometers) from the hotel and at an elevation of about 8,500 feet (2,600 meters) on Mount Etna. To make the exercise more realistic, the team added a second signal delay to the operating system to simulate the time it would take for commands to reach the lunar surface from Lunar Gateway. As the rover picked up the rocks from the volcano, Reiter was able to feel what the remote control rover’s gripper felt — an extra dimension to the ESA sample collection exercise.
“We learned a lot about the collaboration between ground control on Earth and the crew aboard a space station orbiting the moon, both of whom pilot a rover on the surface – this ‘shared’ operation can be extremely efficient – much more efficient then when both sides do it alone,” Reiter said in a pronunciation†
The system has been in development for more than a decade, starting as a joystick that ESA says can be controlled by an astronaut while in orbit. The four-day simulation marks the first time the Interact rover has been put to the test during an apparent outdoor deployment. By the end of the four days, the rover successfully returned the rock samples to the lunar lander. The three rovers also teamed up to set up a series of antennas over the simulated lunar surface to mimic a radio astronomy station on the moon. Interestingly, these antennas even managed to catch a radio burst from Jupiter — the result of its volcanic moon Io passing through the planet’s magnetic field.
At the end of the simulation, ESA found that the controls of the rover would likely be too heavy for astronauts aboard the future Lunar Gateway.
“What we soon discovered was that continuous remote monitoring was very demanding for the astronaut operator, so we added features to take the pressure off a bit – similar to the assisted driving that modern cars offer,” Thomas Krueger, head of ESA’s Human Robot Interaction Lab, said in a statement. “For example, the driver can designate a location and let the rover decide for itself how to get there safely. And its neural network is programmed to recognize scientifically valuable rocks for itself.”
That definitely sounds much easier and definitely more fitting for the futuristic Artemis era. ESA hopes to launch the rover and have the operating system up and running by the end of this decade.
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