Astronaut to Control a Moon Robot From the Space Station

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano will control this rover remotely in November to simulate remote control of future lunar rovers. In the experiment, known as ANALOG-1, he will use the rover and its arm to move rocks instead of cones.  (Image credit: ESA)

An astronaut on the space station will practice remotely driving a robot on the moon this November.

In the future, astronauts might remotely control rovers on the moon, or even on Mars, from nearby orbiting stations. To see how well this might work, astronauts on the International Space Station will soon conduct ANALOG-1, a European Space Agency (ESA) experiment designed to test how well a crew on the International Space Station might be able to control a rover on the moon in collaboration with a ground team on Earth.

"Space is such a harsh place for humans and machines. Future exploration of the solar system may involve sending robotic explorers to test the waters on uncharted planets before sending humans," William Carey, ESA scientist and principal investigator for the ANALOG-1 experiment, said in a NASA statement. "The approach could greatly increase the scientific return on those missions, as well as offer a way to avoid potential contamination from humans landing on the surface before we can answer questions about existing or previous life on Mars."

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The experiment, which is scheduled to take place this November, will last about two hours, during which ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano will use a specialized computer program and communication with a ground team to remotely control a rover and the rover's robotic arm on moon-like terrain in the Netherlands. 

Parmitano will be tasked with both collecting and analyzing samples remotely with the rover and its arm. To do this, he will use a Sigma 7 "joystick" to "feel" what the rover "feels" and take geological samples to simulate sample collection on the moon.

"The force feedback enables the operator to feel what the robot feels," ESA robotics lead engineer Thomas Krueger said in the statement. "For example, if the robot touches a fragile object, it measures and transmits information back to the user, who then feels its delicateness on the Sigma 7 joystick. They can then operate the arm more carefully than with a normal joystick."

One main challenge that might affect the experiment will be how well astronauts are able to maneuver and control the rover in microgravity, where human senses like touch and feel are different, according to the statement. 

ANALOG-1 will test how Parmiatno handles the controls in the unique environment onboard the space station, as well as how well the crew on station and the Earth-based ground crew communicate and work together to guide the "lunar" robot. 

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.