First Handshake and Force-Feedback with Space Demonstrated

©ESA

First Handshake and Force-Feedback with Space Demonstrated.

ESA performed the first-ever demonstration of space-to-ground remote control with force feedback and live video on 3 June 2015, as NASA astronaut Terry Virts orbiting Earth on the International Space Station shook hands with ESA telerobotics specialist André Schiele in the Netherlands.

Terry was testing a joystick that allows astronauts in space to 'feel' objects from hundreds of kilometres away. The joystick is a twin of the one on Earth and moving either makes its copy move in the same way. The joystick provides feedback so both users can feel the force of the other pushing or pulling.

The test occurred as part of the Haptics-2 experiment programme, overseen by ESA's Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory in the ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. An hour was devoted to the test, which faced some technical hurdles on the day. Once contact was established with the ISS, the haptics software on the ISS side needed to be reinstalled. This was achieved with only a short time to spare, then a scheduled loss of signal with the Station meant only a few minutes were left. But both the astronaut in orbit and the Telerobotics Lab team on the ground were determined to make the test happen.

The success verified the communications network, the control technology and the software behind the connection. Each signal from Terry to André had to travel from the International Space Station to another satellite some 36 000 km above Earth, through Houston mission control in USA and across the Atlantic Ocean to ESTEC in the Netherlands, taking up to 0.8 seconds in total both ways - but the system automatically adjusts to time delays or data packet loss.

One day, astronauts orbiting Mars might use evolved versions of this system to control rovers on the ground to perform human-like tasks on the surface - without being there.

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