The International Space Station is all science all the time. On June 3rd, U.S. astronaut Terry Virts and the European Space Agency did something that has never been done before – the first demonstration of space-to-ground remote control with live video and force feedback.

ESA telerobotics specialist André Schiele was sitting in the Netherlands when Virts shook his hand.

“The system worked even though the Space Station was flying over 5000 km away,” André said. “It felt as though Terry was extending his arm down from space to shake my hand.”

handshake in space

Virts tested a joystick that allows him to ‘feel’ objects from hundreds of miles away. A twin joystick is on Earth. When one is moved, the other mirrors the movement.

Schiele could feel Virts pulling or pushing through his joystick.

What could this technology be used for?

First, let’s look at one of the limitations faced by NASA and the ESA, specifically when it comes to Mars rovers. It takes a command from Earth 12 minutes to reach a rover on Mars.

The ESA envisions a day where astronauts could control these robots from Mars’ orbit. Imagine how much more science could be done if you could immediately command a Mars’ rover.

Not to mention the plethora of uses for this technology here on Earth. This tech would be incredibly handy for researchers exploring remote terrain or first responders in disaster areas. The ESA is planning another test in September to control a more advanced robot on the ground.

This week’s test was a lot more than a pair of joysticks. The communications network and the software performed incredibly well. As Terry moved his joystick, the signal took a meandering path across space and Earth. First, it went to a satellite, then to Houston mission control and finally to ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in the Netherlands. It took about a second for the signal to travel both ways.

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Plus, the software had to adjust on the fly to the ISS’ changing position.

Future tests will be much more complex. Astronauts will conduct blind tests on objects made of foam to see if they can distinguish an object’s stiffness remotely – an important milestone for advancing this technology.

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