The Mars Yard Test Area at Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage was the location for a very special test: European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake on Friday, Apr. 29, drove the rover prototype “Bridget” from the International Space Station (ISS). This experiment is part of the ESA METERON program (Multi-Purpose End-To-End Robotic Operation Network) which is validating autonomous and real-time telerobotic operations from space to ground.
The goal is to understand and develop the technologies needed for future space exploration missions, and look at how humans and robotics can work together. To test various scenarios and to validate the related technologies, robots and rovers on Earth will be controlled from the ISS with haptic feedback and video footage.
The Mars yard is 30m by 13m and split in two using a partition to simulate the entrance to a cave, and the cave end has very low light conditions. One rover prototype navigated autonomously across the well-lit portion of the yard before stopping when it reached the cave area, and then Tim Peake then took control of a second prototype, Bridget.
The experiment involved teams at the Mars Yard in Stevenage, ESA’s ESOC operations center, Darmstadt, Germany, which served as the mission control center for the experiment, and Belgium’s Station User Support and Operation Centre in Brussels, which served as the interface to the ISS.
Airbus handed Bridget over to controllers at ESOC at about 12:35 GMT (14:35 CEST), who drove it to the edge of a simulated cave or crater – the shaded area at the Mars Yard.
Control was then be passed to Tim, at about 14:20 GMT (16:20 CEST), who commanded the rover to drive ‘into the dark’, avoiding obstacles and identifying potential science targets, which were marked with a distinctive fluorescent marker.
“Future missions into the Solar System will include humans working hand-in-hand with robots as our scouts and proxies, gathering scientific and physical information that will make human exploration feasible,” says Philippe Schoonejans, Head of Robotics and Future Projects and coordinator for ESA’s METERON project.
While Tim Peake drove Bridget there was a delay before his instructions were carried out, a result of signals being relayed from the ISS to the Mars test area. These conditions are the same as an astronaut in orbit around the Moon or Mars would have when remotely operating a rover. The objective given to Tim Peake, which he was told about just before the experiment, was to enter the cave, find up to 3 targets marked with UV paint and exit the cave in 90 minutes. For each target the rover must approach within 2 meters, center the target in the camera view, mark map, and notify ground control.