Tim Peake pilots 'Martian' rover

The ESA technology blurs the line between manned and robotic exploration

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The MarsYard is as close in colour to the Red Planet as possible to accurately test how the cameras and lights react to the environment.
Credit: Elizabeth Pearson

Tim Peake took part in a cosmic treasure hunt on 29 April, driving a rover across a Martian landscape to search for hidden secrets.

Though the ESA astronaut was orbiting 400km above the Earth’s surface on the International Space Station, the rover itself was located in the MarsYard – a replica Martian habitat made to look as much like the Red Planet as possible and located at Airbus in Stevenage. It was here that Tim would search the russet landscape for targets hidden in the dust. To make things even harder the lights had been turned low, emulating the dimness of a cave.

“It’s kind of like a game,” said Abby Hutty from ExoMars, “The idea is that rovers are completely autonomous, but when there is somewhere scientifically interesting such as a chasm or a cave that has low light conditions, we might need an astronaut to take over.”

At 15:02GMT Tim assumed control of the rover, named Bridget. At first the rover just twitched, moving in stops and starts. Before today Tim had neither operated the rover, nor seen the surroundings he would drive across, an effort to test how intuitive the system was.

It appeared this element of the mission was a success. Before long, the rover performed an elegant pirouette as he scanned his environment, then headed towards the cave, which in reality was a section of the Mars yard that had been partitioned off and kept in darkness.

Man and Machine

The dim lighting was an important part of the experiment. The mission is part of the METERON project which aims to blend together human and robotic exploration of space. One day rather than sending a crew to the surface of Mars, instead we might send them into orbit. From there astronauts can operate rovers on the surface, getting the best of both worlds.

Previously, Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen performed tasks testing another rover’s ability to perform dexterity tasks. This particular experiment aimed to see how a human brain navigates using robotic eyes.

Had this project been conducted purely automatically, the robot would have had great trouble navigating the cave, because of the way the light bounced around the dark.

“Robots are scared of their own shadow,” says Jessica Grenouilleau, from the European Space Agency. “They think they see an obstacle but actually it’s just a shadow.”

For Tim though, the difference was obvious. He quickly navigated into the cave, and started the hunt for his targets – crosses painted on rocks emulating objects of scientific interest.

To verify the targets, Tim had to shine a ultraviolet light on them to make them glow. But some of them were fakes. They didn’t glow. For Tim, it only took a few minutes for him to work out whether a particular cross was real or not and move on. If an automated rover hadn’t been specifically programmed to tell the difference though, it could waste hours or even days.

Before long, Tim had discovered all three targets that he need to consider the task a success. With half an hour remaining he continued to search the cave for more.

It was then that disaster nearly struck.

Crisis averted

Tim decided to pilot the rover over a rock towards an interesting looking area. Unfortunately with only a low-quality video feed to navigate by, he didn’t realise the rock was actually a boulder, too large for rover to navigate safely. It looked like the entire mission might end marooned in the cave.

Luckily, Bridget itself came to the rescue. Its automated protocols realised the boulder was unsafe to cross, and so it stopped itself. As smart as humans are, sometimes a little automation can prevent a mission failure

After successfully dismounting the rock, Tim was told there were only four minutes left to exit the cave. Most real Martian missions use solar power and so can’t recharge while in the dark of a cave. Instead they would have to rely on their batteries, putting a strict time limit on any investigations and so Tim was given the same limit.

Two hours after first taking control of the rover, Tim emerged having found five of his hidden targets. The mission was a success. It won’t be long before the same partnerships between man and machine are being used to explore the Moon, Mars and beyond.


 

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