The ultimate goal is for robot astronauts to roam around hazardous places like Mars and asteroids guided by human controllers safely orbiting overhead in their spacecraft.
As a first step, ESA is linking the International Space Station and Earth for remotely controlling terrestrial test robots from the orbital outpost.
This Meteron (Multi-purpose End-To-End Robotic Operations Network) initiative is a testbed for future missions to the Moon, Mars and other celestial bodies.
“Later this year, astronauts on the Station will practice remote control of the small rover in a simulated landscape here at ESOC, says François Bosquillon de Frescheville, experiment manager at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany.
The rover – known as Meteron Operation and CommUnication Prototype, or MOCUP – is built from a LEGO© Mindstorm kit with some custom-made additions, and for now can do only simple things.
The astronauts will use a computer on the Station to control the rover and will see what it is ‘seeing’ and doing on a screen, like a video game.
“The Space Station is the perfect orbital platform to simulate very realistic scenarios for human exploration,” says ESA’s Kim Nergaard, a Meteron manager.
In the simulation, the rover is meant to be moving through an ‘alien’ landscape, so the ESA team asked local secondary-school students to design a horizon in the shape of a hexagon built out of 12 painted wooden panels to contain the rover and a number of obstacles for the astronauts to negotiate.
“We gave the student team a series of firm technical requirements, but the design of the background was left open to their imagination,” says Kim.
“We thought they’d do a reddish, martian desert, maybe with a few boulders. Instead, they delivered a futuristic cityscape.
“It’s wonderful, and it speaks volumes about the optimism with which youth imagine the future – it’s obviously a pretty cool place.”
While brainstorming their graphic design, the 11 students from the Schuldorf Bergstrasse near Darmstadt considered a number of concepts, but finally settled on the cityscape.
“It was a democratic vote by the students themselves, who just thought a future city skyline would be more interesting for the live rover tests,” said Petra Thomschke, one of the teachers working with the students.
“Remotely commanding the model rover will provide a through test for the links from the Station to ground, which must be confirmed before moving on to the more sophisticated robots later in the Meteron project,” says Kim.
“The students of Schuldorf Bergstrasse can be proud of their contribution to ESA’s exploration activities.”