When astronauts finally one day arrive at an alien world, they might want to send a robot advance party down to check out the surface before committing themselves to landing – but controlling a rover from space is far from straightforward, as the orbiting driver would only have intermittent line of sight contact with a ground vehicle.

So, the European Space Agency has been working on a “space internet” concept to store commands when signals are interrupted or the surface unit is lost, and then forward them once contact is re-established. And, on 7 August a trial run went better than expected, with ESA’s Alexander Gerst, orbiting Earth in the International Space Station, steering the agency’s Eurobot rover around a test facility at its ESTEC technology centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

During the 90-minute session – about the time taken for the ISS to make one trip around the Earth at its 400km altitude - “ground control” was at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany and control signals were routed via Belgium’s Station User Support and Operations Centre in Brussels, and via NASA.

Gerst, working from a dedicated controller laptop, commanded Eurobot to move and take pictures based on telemetry and on pictures streamed back to the space station from the rover.

Kim Nergaard, head of Advanced Mission Concepts at ESOC, said this first-ever trial from orbit helped “validate technologies that will ultimately be used for future human exploration missions”.

The Meteron network communications concept - Multi-Purpose End-To-End Robotic Operations Network – had already been tested on the ground; in 2012, NASA astronaut Sunita Williams used an initial version to steer a model rover at ESOC.

“Today’s result is even better than the simulations we conducted,” said Daniela Taubert, Meteron’s operations coordinator. “The whole experiment ran extremely smoothly. Alex was faster and more efficient that we had expected.”

William Carey, ESA’s Meteron project engineer, added: “It is great to have a hands-on test of part of ESA’s long-term strategy to send humans and robots to explore our Solar System.”

Source: FlightGlobal.com