Space to Earth connections are about to get more exciting. Later on today, Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen will remote-control a robot on Earth from the International Space Station. It will be "as if an astronaut can extend his arm from space to the ground," according to a European Space Agency brochure.
In what's dubbed the "Interact" experiment, Mogensen will tele-operate a four-wheeled and two-armed Centaur Rover robot based at the European Space Agency's European Space Research and Technology center (ESTEC) in the Netherlands during his 10-day "iriss" mission (focusing on testing new tech in space), which just launched today.
A haptic joystick aboard the ISS will let Mogensen receive feedback signals from the rover, allowing him to guide it better around a specially designed obstacle course, and make it put a plug in a socket.
"The Interact experiment builds on the tech we tested for the first time with the Space-to-Earth handshake," Andre Schiele, the head of European Space Agency (ESA) telerobotics and haptics laboratory, told me. Back in June 2015, an astronaut from space "shook" another person's hand on Earth through two haptic joysticks (one on Earth and one in space). The rover is a considerable upgrade to the joystick-to-joystick experiment.
"What makes this rover stand out is its capability to do force-controlled assembly tasks (bilateral interaction between astronaut and robot)," added Schiele.
The haptic feedback received by Mogenson from the roving robot allows him to feel whether the rover is on track or not—any misalignments can be adjusted by fine-tuning the angles and alignment of the robot from the ISS. The signal between the ground rover and the haptic joystick travels via a satellite connection at 36,000 km altitude. A time lag of around 0.8 seconds from robot to joystick and back can, however, cause a few challenges, as it makes the rover harder to control.
The robot itself has seven degrees of movement in its two arms. This lets it do things like pick up objects and move things around. It also comes equipped with sensors that perceive its environment, and a camera on top of its swivel head affords it some visuals. It's pretty robust, and Schiele explained that it's intended for use in search-and-rescue missions on rough terrains as well as for disaster relief.
Schiele said that the aim was also to eventually use the technology up in space to set up a telescope on the far side of the moon.
"The telescope could be remote-controlled by humans either from Earth or from an orbiting station," he said.
Sending a robot instead of a human up to space is an advantage seeing as it cuts both the costs and risks of sending a body made of flesh and blood up into an inhospitable environment.
"A rover is replaceable and it can also access certain locations that are impossible for humans to reach," said Schiele.
Schiele and his team are currently working on exoskeletons that can be donned by astronauts aboard the ISS to accomplish tasks that are not possible with just a haptic joystick. The exoskeletons, said Schiele, would allow more degrees of freedom, allowing astronauts to carry out more complex tasks.
"Once this is up there, we can control a robot to do any task. If we have a robot on the surface of Mars and a human in orbit, we can do humanlike activities on the surface without being there," said Schiele.
"Our scenario is projecting human presence into places where humans can't go."