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New plan: Send humans into space, keep the robots on Earth

Usual space exploration model topsy-turvinated by ESA

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Barring certain exceptions, as everyone knows, the usual way for humanity to explore other planets or astronomical bodies is that we send out sophisticated robots to have a look round, controlled by teams of humans here on Earth.

The mobile robotic system Justin, developed at the German Aerospace Center. Credit: DLR

Vorsprung durch Robotertechnik

But that's boring, according to bigwigs at the European Space Agency (ESA). Just for a change of pace, they've decided to send the humans into space and keep the robots here on Earth: but the humans will still control the robots, not the other way round.

Sadly this doesn't herald the first manned interplanetary mission. It remains the case that the only space destination for humans in the near future will be the International Space Station (ISS). Under ESA plans announced yesterday, astronauts in the station's Columbus laboratory podule will use a variety of innovative interfaces to control a range of robots down here on Earth's surface.

ESA astronaut Christer Fuglesang works with Exoskeleton in the robotics lab at ESTEC. Credit: ESA/J van Haarlem

I know, let's build this rig into the robot!

Apparently the novel topsy-turvination of the usual model of space exploration results from a consultation exercise in which the ESA invited submissions on using the station and its crew to conduct experiments. Many ideas involving control of ground robots from space were sent in.

“The multitude of submissions shows the strength of the idea,” comments Philippe Schoonejans, ESA robotics honcho.

One cunning plan would see an orbiting astronaut use an "exoskeleton" rig to make a humanoid "android" dubbed "Justin" conform to the human controller's movements. Earlier experiments will see a more basic rover-type droid in remote space station telepresence action. The underlying metwork and protocol project has been dubbed Meteron (Multi-purpose End-To-End Robotic Operations Network).

The idea of humans in space controlling robots on Earth may seem to make a mockery of manned space exploration, but in fact – assuming that people ever do travel beyond low Earth orbit – they will probably make a lot of use of robotics despite the fact that they are at or near the places they want to explore. Operations by the Space Shuttle and the ISS have been made much easier by the powerful robot arms fitted to both, and by the presence of such machinery as the station's DEXTRE robot.

Humans exploring the Moon or Mars from orbit (or from bases or colonies protected from deadly space radiation and the hostile local environment) would not necessarily be redundant: their presence would avoid delays caused by the serious comms latency resulting from astronomical distances. But the explorers might often choose, rather than suiting up and doing a job themselves, to send in the robots despite being nearby themselves.

There's more on Meteron from the ESA here. ®

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