Space Station Astronaut Commands NASA Rover in California


International Space Station astronaut Chris Cassidy broke new ground this week by controlling a robotic rover at NASA's Ames Research Center in California.

The first of three monthly sessions between an ISS crew member and the K10 rover is intended to demonstrate that an astronaut in orbit or approaching a planetary body such as an asteroid, moon or a planet could effectively control a distant robot with remote commanding.


Chris Cassidy watches over K10 from the ISS. Photo credit:NASA

In the case of the Surface Telerobotics experiment, Cassidy is interacting with K10 for the simulated assembly of a radio telescope on the moon's far side.  It's something than an astronaut posted on an outpost at the Earth/moon's L-2 point might attempt.


K10 rover at NASA's Ames Research Center. Photo Credit: NASA

Cassidy's job is to oversee K10 as the rover scouts the construction zone, according to Maria Baulat, the project lead for the evaluation from Ames.

"This operation will obtain baseline engineering data, validate and correlate prior ground simulations, and reduce the risk that architecture and mission planning is based on inaccurate assumptions," said Baulat in a NASA video interview. "One of the hardest parts of any planetary mission is to safely land on the surface. A robot on the surface controlled by crew in an orbiting or approaching vehicle can get a lot of the precursor exploration work done. A robot can be used, for example, to prepare a landing site, or it could scout for a clear area, make sure the ground is firm."

What Cassidy sees on his ISS video display is telemetry indicating the status of the rover's subsystems, position and heading and imagery of its surroundings. Stereo cameras on the rover and lidar/laser sensors are used to display the robot in a 3-D virtual setting for the astronaut operator.

The challenge for K-10's ISS teammate is a communications delay of a few seconds, which requires concentration by the astronaut and the use of a supervisory control function that commands the rover to carry out pre-programmed tasks and avoid surface hazards. A distant astronaut -- the role Cassidy is playing -- would be poised to take over control, for instance, if the rover has difficulty moving around an obstacle or fails to gather the assigned data.

"We want to see how a person in weightlessness reacts to this system. We have done a lot of work with it on the ground, but we have never done any kind of testing in space," explained Baulat. "We are going to analyze the data to see how well our system works, where we can improve -- where are the gaps in current technology? In other words, what new technologies do we need?"

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