Astronauts control rover from space

TORONTO – Who knew that video games might be a prerequisite to a job in space exploration?

In June, NASA began studying how astronauts could use remotely operated vehicles to help explore other worlds such as asteroids, the moon, or Mars.

On June 17, while the International Space Station was hundreds of kilometres above Earth, Expedition 36 Flight Engineer Chris Cassidy remotely operated the K10 planetary rover on the Roverscape, an outdoor test area located at NASA Ames. Cassidy operated the vehicle for three hours.

Then, on July 26, Flight Engineer Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency got his turn, deploying a simulated radio antenna.

The K10 robot is a four-wheel drive, four-wheel steer robot which stands about 4.5 feet tall. It won’t be winning any races, though: K10 weighs about 220 pounds and can travel only about three feet per second.

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“During future missions beyond low-Earth orbit, some work will not be feasible for humans to do manually,” said Terry Fong, Human Exploration Telerobotics project manager and director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., which designed and managed the tests. “Robots will complement human explorers, allowing astronauts to perform work via remote control from a space station, spacecraft or other habitat.”

One of the advantages to using a remotely-controlled robot is the possibility of sending it to the the far side of the moon where a radio antenna can be deployed and be free from the radio noise from Earth.

Though robots have been controlled remotely to explore oceans, this is the first time it is being considered to be used in space exploration.

“Whereas it is common practice in undersea exploration to use a joystick and have direct control of remote submarines, the K10 robots are more intelligent,” said Fong. “Astronauts interact with the robots at a higher level, telling them where to go, and then the robot itself independently and intelligently figures out how to safely get there.”

NASA will conduct a final test in August.

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