Rover gathers rocks on an active volcano to simulate a lunar mission

Rover gathers rocks on an active volcano to simulate a lunar mission

The four-wheeled, two-armed Interact rover spent four days picking up rocks on Mount Etna.

The four-wheeled, two-armed Interact rover spent four days picking up rocks on Mount Etna.
Photo: ESA

While working in a hotel room in Italy, astronaut Thomas Reiter commanded a four-wheeled robot to pick up rocks from the surface of an active volcano on the east coast of Sicily, and it did. playing a role as if it were orbiting the Moon.

The four-day simulation is part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) preparation for a future mission to the Moon, where it plans to land a rover on the lunar surface to collect rock samples. The rover, as part of the next Artemis missions, will be guided by a team on Earth, as well as an astronaut on board Lunar Gatewaya planned space station that will orbit the Moon.

The crawler Scout goes around Etna.
GIF: ESA

Although not quite the Moon, Etna’s volcanic surface served as an analogue for the lunar surface. The four-wheeled, two-armed Interact rover was modified for the rugged slopes of the volcano, and it explored the rugged terrain alongside two other rovers, Light Rover Units 1 and 2, owned by the German Aerospace Center. Additionally, a stationary lunar lander provided the rover with wifi and power, an aerial drone performed surface mapping, and a centipede-like robot called Scout served as a relay between the Interact rover and the lander. . Scout was provided by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

During the four days, ESA astronaut Reiter commanded the rover to pick up rocks using controls installed in a hotel room in Sicily. The Interact rover was also guided by controllers into a rover control room, which was set up in another hotel room since the controllers and the astronaut will be physically separated during an actual mission.

The rover itself was about 14 miles (23 kilometers) from the hotel and at an altitude of about 8,500 feet (2,600 meters) on Mount Etna. To make the exercise more realistic, the team added a second of signal delay to the control system to simulate how long it would take for the controls to reach the Moon’s surface from Lunar Gateway. As the rover picked up rocks from the volcano, Reiter could feel what the rover’s gripper felt from the remote control – an added dimension to ESA’s sample collection exercise.

Astronaut Reiter ordered the rover to pick up rocks from this nearby hotel room.

Astronaut Reiter ordered the rover to pick up rocks from this nearby hotel room.
Photo: ESA

“We learned a lot about the collaboration between ground control on Earth and the crew aboard a space station orbiting the Moon, both operating a rover on the surface – this ‘shared’ operation can be extremely effective – much more effective than either side doing it alone,” Reiter said in a statement.

The Interact rover completed its mission by delivering the rock samples to the lunar lander.
GIF: ESA

The system has been in development for more than a decade, beginning as a joystick that could be controlled by an astronaut in orbit, according to ESA. The four-day simulation marks the first time the Interact rover has been put through its paces in an outdoor installation simulation. At the end of the four days, the rover successfully returned the rock samples to the lunar lander. The three rovers also worked together to set up an antenna array on the simulated lunar surface to mimic a radio astronomy station on the Moon. Interestingly, these antennae actually managed to pick up a radio burst from Jupiter, the result of its volcanic moon Io passing through the planet’s magnetic field.

At the end of the simulation, ESA found that the controls for the rover were likely to be too onerous for the astronauts aboard the future Lunar Gateway.

“What we quickly discovered was that continuous remote monitoring was very demanding on the astronaut operator, so we added features to take some of the pressure off, which is equivalent to assisted driving. offered by modern cars,” said Thomas Krueger, head of ESA. Robot Interaction Lab, said in a statement. “So, for example, the operator can point to a location and let the rover decide for itself how to get there safely. And its neural network has been programmed to recognize scientifically valuable rocks on its own.

It certainly seems much easier and certainly more suited to the futuristic era of Artemis. ESA hopes to launch the rover and put the control system into live action by the end of this decade.

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