Astronauts may soon be able to reach out and touch planets remotely

2 Feb 2022

Analog-1. Image: ESA/G Porter

An ESA experiment allowed an astronaut in space to remotely control a robot on an artificial lunar landscape and ‘feel’ the rocks it collected.

As remote work takes hold of our lives on Earth, research at the European Space Agency (ESA) could mean that astronauts will be able to work from spacecraft in orbit while controlling robots to perform on-ground studies on lunar and planetary surfaces.

ESA scientists successfully conducted an experiment in which an astronaut on the International Space Station obtained direct haptic feedback from an Earth-based robot that had an advanced gripper with the equivalent mobility of a human hand.

Luca Parmitano, the first astronaut in history to achieve this feat, remotely picked up and ‘felt’ rock samples from a mock lunar environment that had been set up in an old aircraft hangar at the ESA’s technology centre in the Netherlands – all while the ISS travelled in orbit.

Known as Analog-1, the mission was a culmination of 11 experiments conducted over a decade by the ESA under the Multi-Purpose End-To-End Robotic Operation Network (METERON) project to test ways of interacting with robots from afar.

The experiment demonstrated that Parmitano could control the robot’s arm as it moved through three translational and three rotational degrees of freedom, transmitting back what it ‘felt’ through haptic feedback. He was able to sense the weight of rock samples and manipulate them remotely.

‘More difficult and complex investigations’

The two-hour Analog-1 test was conducted in November 2019 and its results were published last week in the journal Open Astronomy by Kjetil Wormnes and his colleagues based at the ESA research centre in Noordwijk, The Netherlands.

In the future, they said this system could be used by astronauts exploring the moon or different planets to conduct on-ground research without needing to be physically present on harsh extra-terrestrial surfaces.

“This combination of a robust robot explorer on the lunar surface and a highly trained astronaut operator in the relative safety of orbit will allow more difficult and complex investigations of that surface than are currently possible,” says Wormnes, a mechatronics engineer at the ESA.

He added that the experiment could one day “even pave the way to establishing and sustaining a human presence on the moon”.

In 2020, China’s Chang’e 5 mission became the first to bring back rocks from the moon since 1976 – making it the third country to achieve the feat. The rocks and lunar samples were collected by a lander craft using a robotic arm and deposited in an ascender craft.

While many missions have taken robots to the moon and other planetary surfaces in the last five decades, with more on the way, the dexterity and control seen in the Analog-1 test could help astronauts undertake more complex missions in future.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic