NASA astronaut controls Earth robots while flying 17,150 mph aboard ISS

The test is part of NASA and ESA's future plans for controlling robots on the Moon's surface from the lunar Gateway station.
Chris Young
Frank Rubio controlling Rollin' Justin.
Frank Rubio controlling Rollin' Justin.


NASA astronaut Frank Rubio recently controlled a small team of robots on Earth while flying aboard the International Space Station (ISS), a blog post from the European Space Agency (ESA) reveals.

The test was carried out in order to demonstrate and investigate the capacity for using remote-controlled robots for future lunar exploration.

NASA aims to send a team of astronauts around the Moon and back for its Artemis II mission next year before performing the Artemis III lunar landing in 2025 or 2026.

It will then aim to establish a permanent presence on the Moon with astronauts constantly orbiting our celestial neighbor.

A remote-controlled space robot test

The two-hour telerobotics test took place in a simulated planetary environment in the German Aerospace Center, DLR, at Oberpfaffenhofen near Munich.

During the test, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio controlled three robots from the European Columbus module of the ISS. He was assigned the task of removing a seismometer from a lunar lander and placing it on the ground.

Rubio controlled DLR's Rollin’ Justin humanoid robot and ESA’s four-wheeled, two-armed Interact rover. According to the ESA post, "he took direct control as needed using a force-feedback device." 

Rubio controlled the robots to remove a tuck pin from the lander before he could use Rollin' Justin to place the seismometer on the ground of the simulated lunar environment.

The astronaut was able to complete all the tasks, giving the team valuable data in the process. He did all of this while orbiting Earth at a speed of approximately 17,500 miles (28,000 km/h) aboard the ISS.

The test was part of a wider series of tests called 'Surface Avatar'. It paves the way for a follow-up with a larger team of robots that will be carried out by Danish ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen.

Preparing for lunar operations

In the future, NASA and ESA operations will likely involve real scenarios where astronauts will orbit the moon aboard a lunar station called Gateway while controlling robots on the lunar surface.

The lunar Gateway program will be operational at some point after NASA's Artemis III lunar landing, which will be the first Moon landing since Apollo 17 in 1972. State-of-the-art technologies like robotics and even generative artificial intelligence will form a crucial part of the program.

"Our METERON project undertaken with DLR, proved the feasibility of this force-feedback control technique from local orbit, expanding to work with astronauts on the ISS and culminating in an outdoor campaign in the Moon-like environment of Mount Etna in Sicily," Thomas Krueger, head of ESA’s Human Robot Interaction Lab, partnering with DLR's Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, explained in ESA's post.

"With Surface Avatar we are combining direct teleoperation approach with supervised autonomy to control multiple robotic assets to accomplish complex tasks: picture a building site on Earth, where a crane might work alongside a bulldozer or excavator to get a big task done." 

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