Working outside in space is a tall order. The environment is hostile, even the smallest job takes hours instead of minutes, and everything has to be done in either bulky suits or through robotic arms. It's a challenge that will become even more difficult when future astronauts are controlling robotic rovers from orbit, so ESA is getting in a bit of practice. Next month Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen will take control of a rover in the Netherlands while orbiting the Earth aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Scheduled for September 7, the test will take place on the space station while the Interact Centaur rover will be on the grounds of ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. According to the space agency, this is the first time such an elaborate rover/force-feedback experiment has been attempted, though a simpler teleoperated handshake in space was performed in June by NASA astronaut Terry Virts on the ISS and ESA telerobotics specialist André Schiele in the Netherlands.

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The Interact Centaur rover consists of a 4x4 mobile platform with an articulated camera stalk, proximity and localization sensors, and two arms designed for precision operations. It uses laser guidance and haptic controls to provide force feedback, so Mogensen will be able to feel as he works through the robot arms at assembly tasks at the sub-millimeter range.

The "operations task board" that ESA's Interact Centaur rover, controlled from the ISS by Andreas Mogensen, will locate and then then to remove and plug a metal pin into (Credit: ESA)

The test will involve using the robot to find an "operations task board" on the ground, then pick up a metal pin and plug it into the board. Since the pin has a mechanical fit and tolerance less than a sixth of a millimeter, the job will require a considerable degree of precision.

The test will be carried out while the ISS orbits at an altitude of 400 km (250 mi), though ESA says that necessary satellite relays will make the distance the equivalent of 90,000 km (56,000 mi). This means that Mogensen must also deal with the slight lag caused by the time it takes for signals to make the round trip between ground and station.

"When we humans have to perform precision operations, for instance simply inserting our key into the lock of our door, we are relying largely on our feeling of tactile and force receptors in the hand and arms – not on eyesight," says principal investigator Schiele. "Visual information is of minor importance – these kind of tasks can be done with our eyes closed. ESA is transferring this skill to remotely-controllable robotic systems.

ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen will board the Soyuz TMA-18M flight to the International Space Station in September 2015 (Credit: ESA)

"Without haptic feedback, the operator of a robot arm or rover must be very careful not to damage something if the robot is in contact with its environment. As a result, a simple task in space often takes a very long time. Moreover, the tactile sensation derived from any task contains important information about the geometric relationship of the objects involved and therefore allows to execute tasks more intuitively and thus significantly faster."

Source: ESA View gallery - 4 images