For the first time in history, an astronaut in space has shak hands with a scientist on Earth, thanks to a remote system that could eventually be used to explore planets using robots.
Yesterday researchers from the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully managed to use space-to-ground remote controls and receive force feedback while communicating with the International Space Station.
Astronaut Terry Virts used a joystick onboard the space station that allowed him to feel an object that was hundreds of miles away – the object in question was the hand of a researcher back on Earth.
The joystick can move forwards or backwards and its twin in the other location mimics its action.
The advancement may only sound like a small step, but it’s the first in a long path that can significantly enhance space exploration.
ESA says its long-term vision is to send astronauts to orbit far-off planets and then be able to control robots that are on the surface from their spacecraft.
“In the future, we want to use robotic systems to carry out human-like tasks in places where humans can’t, shouldn’t or don’t want to go (usually if it is unhealthy or inaccessible to go there),” said ESA researchers writing their version of events.
“In order to do this, we need to find out which computer algorithms and which robotic hardware is required and optimal to do that.”
— ESA Operations (@esaoperations) June 3, 2015
The test was also important for the quality of communications networks as each signal sent had to travel from the ISS to another satellite that was orbiting Earth, then to the mission control in the USA and finally to the ESA’s own control centre.
The astronaut and the ground grew were able to communicate by the live video stream, which also had instructions implemented over the screen saying the direction the joystick should be pushed in. They also communicated by hand signals.
Despite the success, the crew did have some problems connecting to the systems and almost ran out of time to complete the experiment.
“We have a signal! We just connected to our Haptics-1 system for the first time and verified the connection of the link between space and ground! It works,” the team behind the project said.
“However, crew still needs to re-install the software on the tablet to perform the full experiment! Stay tuned… we have 1 hour left.. time is getting tight. But we’ll manage!”
— ESATelerobotics (@ESATelerobotics) June 3, 2015
André Schiele, who controlled the remote control on the ground, said that the test was successful and as result of many years of work by a lot of people .
“The system worked even though the Space Station was flying over 5,000km away,” he said.
“It felt as though Terry was extending his arm down from space to shake my hand.”
The next step is to conduct blind tests on humans to see if we can tell the difference between objects made of foam.
This will let the researchers know if it is possible to identify the qualities of an object while ‘touching’ it from a remote location.