British astronaut pilots earthbound rover from aboard ISS

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Bridget, the UK built Mars rover that Tim Peake controlled from space(Credit: UK Space Agency/Max Alexander)

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Deep space exploration has taken one small step (or roll) forward with the successful test of space-based control of a robot rover from aboard the International Space Station. Friday's experiment saw British ESA astronaut Tim Peake take control of a British-built rover named "Bridget" and guide it around a simulated Martian landscape back on Earth, avoiding obstacles and locating scientific targets along the way.

The experiment is part of an ongoing project by ESA, the UK Space Agency, and Airbus Defence and Space to develop ways for astronauts to control robots during deep space missions. This follows on from a proof-of-concept test in 2012, which used a Lego Mindstorm robot.

During the test, Peake helped guide the robot through a simulated mission in a 30 x 13 m (100 x 43 ft) "Mars Yard" built at the Airbus Defence and Space facility in Hertfordshire, UK, to test the ExoMars rover. This scatter of sand and rough terrain was littered with simulated scientific targets and was divided into two parts – one is brightly lit with the other in shadow to mimic a cave or darkened crater rim.

During the experiment, Bridget was controlled from ESA's European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt as it traversed the lighted area. When it reached the "cave," control was handed over to Peake in low Earth orbit, who helped the rover to avoid obstacles while locating targets marked in ultraviolet fluorescents. He then drove it back to the lighted area, where ESOC took over again and returned Bridget to its starting point.

Bridget in the dark area of the Mars Yard(Credit: UK Space Agency/Max Alexander)

The rover walkabout was part of the ESA-led Multi-purpose End-To-End Robotic Operations Network (METERON), which aims to develop a "space internet" for controlling surface robots in real time from orbiting spacecraft.

Using robots in deep space suffers from an inherent communications lag because signals can take minutes or hours to reach their destination from Earth, so rovers and other robotic probes require a high degree of autonomy. This is not always possible or desirable, but by having an astronaut operator orbiting the planet or asteroid where the robot is working, this delay can be reduced to a fraction of a second. It also means that the rover can be made simpler and lighter, with the astronaut handling the trickier problems.

"The UK is playing a leading role in international space programmes like Meteron and ExoMars, tackling incredibly complex and exciting challenges from space," says Jo Johnson, UK Minister of State for Universities and Science. "This European partnership demonstrates how UK technology and scientific expertise are helping open up our solar system and the development of new technologies that bring new jobs to the UK and help to solve problems back on Earth."

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