Rover collects rocks on an active volcano to simulate a lunar mission

The four-wheeled, two-armed Interact rover spent four days collecting rocks on Mount Etna.

The four-wheeled, two-armed Interact rover spent four days collecting rocks on Mount Etna.
photo: ESA

While training from a hotel room in Italy, astronaut Thomas Reiter commanded a four-wheeled robot to pick up rocks from the surface of an active volcano on Sicily’s east coast, and did so during an RPG as if it were in orbit around the moon .

The four-day simulation is part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) preparation for a future mission to the moon, which will see a rover land on the lunar surface to collect rock samples. The rover will be piloted by a ground-based team and an onboard astronaut as part of the upcoming Artemis missions moongatea proposed space station that will orbit the moon.

The scout crawler makes its way around Mount Etna.
gif: ESA

While not quite the moon, Etna’s volcanic surface served as an analogue of the lunar surface. Modified for the rugged slopes of the volcano, the four-wheeled, two-armed Rover Interact explored the rugged terrain alongside two other rovers, the German Aerospace Center’s Lightweight Rover Units 1 and 2. In addition, a stationary lunar lander provided WiFi and power for the rover, an overhead drone performed surface mapping, and a centipede-like crawler called Scout served as a relay between the Interact rover and the lander. Scout was provided by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

During the four days, ESA astronaut Reiter ordered the rover to pick up rocks using controls set up in a hotel room in Sicily. Interact Rover was also guided by controllers in a rover control room set up in a different hotel room, since the controllers and astronaut will be physically separated during an actual mission.

The rover itself was about 14 miles (23 kilometers) from the hotel and at an altitude of about 8,500 feet (2,600 meters) on Mount Etna. To make the exercise more realistic, the team added a one-second signal delay to the control system to simulate the time it would take for commands from the Lunar Gateway to reach the lunar surface. As the rover picked up the rocks from the volcano, Reiter was able to use the remote control to feel what the rover’s gripper was feeling – an added dimension to ESA’s sample collection exercise.

Astronaut Reiter ordered the rover to retrieve rocks from this nearby hotel room.

Astronaut Reiter ordered the rover to retrieve rocks from this nearby hotel room.
photo: ESA

“We’ve learned a lot about the collaboration between ground control on Earth and the crew aboard a space station orbiting the moon, both piloting a rover on the surface – this ‘joint’ operation can be extremely efficient – much more efficient than on both sides do it alone,” said Reiter in a expression.

The Interact rover completed its mission by bringing the rock samples to the lunar module.
gif: ESA

The system has been in development for more than a decade and began as a joystick that could be controlled by an orbiting astronaut, according to ESA. The four-day simulation marks the first time the Interact rover has been tested during a simulated outdoor setup. At the end of the four days, the rover successfully returned the rock samples to the lunar module. The three rovers also worked together to set up an array of antennas over the simulated lunar surface to emulate a lunar radio astronomy station. Interestingly, these antennas actually managed to pick up a radio burst from Jupiter — the result of its volcanic moon Io passing through the planet’s magnetic field.

At the end of the simulation, ESA determined that controlling the rover would likely be too cumbersome for astronauts aboard the future Lunar Gateway.

“We soon realized that continuous remote monitoring was very demanding for the astronaut operator, so we added features to take some of the pressure off – comparable to the assisted driving that modern cars offer,” Thomas Krüger, Head of ESA’s Human Resources Robot Interaction Lab said in a statement. “For example, the operator can point to a location and let the rover decide how to get there safely. And its neural network has been programmed to recognize scientifically valuable rocks for itself.”

That definitely sounds a lot simpler and certainly more appropriate for the futuristic Artemis era. ESA hopes to launch the rover and have the control system operational by the end of this decade.

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