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Astronaut Gerst drives robot rover from orbit

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Aug 12, 2014, 13:43 UTC

Sen—Whizzing overhead nearly eight kilometres a second, a European astronaut on board the International Space Station has delicately controlled a rover that was firmly rooted on Earth’s surface.

It is a proof of concept that could be applied almost anywhere in the solar system. Imagine an astronaut above the Moon, looking to build scientific facilities at low risk. Or another one floating above Mars, piloting a rover in terrain so rocky that a human landing could be quite hazardous.

Europe’s version of this human spaceflight dream is called Eurobot. Astronaut Alexander Gerst spent 90 minutes in space sending commands to the car-sized rover from 400 km up. Eurobot, meanwhile, moved slowly in a European Space Agency facility in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

“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,” said Kim Nergaard, head of advanced mission concepts at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.

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The Eurobot Ground Prototype rover that is being driven from space in tests for ESOC. Image credit: ESA–A. Le Floc’h

While results from the experiment are still being examined, controllers said at first glance it ran better than the simulations. Gerst’s reaction time was described as better than anticipated, making operations of the rover smooth.

“The Eurobot rover performed particularly well, and they were able to power it up 30 minutes earlier than expected,” read an update on Flight Engineer Gerst’s orbital blog that was written by ESA personnel. “The most important consideration is generally battery life in such situations, but Eurobot gave no reason to be concerned about this at all.”

This isn’t the first time an astronaut has controlled a rover from space in recent memory. In 2013, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano successfully piloted the K10 rover from the International Space Station to deploy and examine a simulated antenna. The surface telerobotics test took place in a simulated “roverscape”—an outdoor landscape—at the NASA Ames Research Center in California.

The concept being tested by Parmitano and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy was intended to simulate a mission where an Orion spacecraft—NASA’s next-generation vehicle—would be in a stable spot in space called a Lagrange point, between the Earth and the Moon.

At that location, the astronauts would remain in a steady spot and it would be possible to keep constant communication with the rover. Should scientists want to do astronomy on the surface, for example, the rover could be controlled to set up a radio telescope, NASA said in 2013.

Such a mission could also have immense scientific return, the agency added, as exploring the more craggy terrain of the far side would yield a different view of the moon than those afforded by the Apollo missions, which took place on the smoother side facing Earth.

ESA's Eurobot rover roving at Darmstadt on 7 August under live control by astronaut Alexander Gerst on board the ISS. Credit: ESA