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Astronaut Commands Rover Over New Space Internet

Using a developmental version of a space Internet, NASA astronaut Sunita Williams commanded a robot on a mock planetary surface in Germany to move forward and take pictures with a laptop aboard the International Space Station.

Sunita Williams, left, works aboard the International Space Station, with Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide in the background. Photo Credit/NASA Photo


The Oct. 23 exercise was sponsored jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency.

As it develops, the Disruption Tolerant Network will make it possible for astronauts in orbit around the moon, Mars or other planetary bodies control a roving robot on the surface below by interactions over the space Internet.

The traditional Internet relies on a continuous link for the steady flow of data — text, imagery and sound. Instead, the space Internet tolerates interruptions brought on by the communications delays associated with the great distances between the Earth and other planetary bodies.

Communications between the Earth and NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover, for instance, take nearly 30 minutes for a two-way exchange — lots of time for interference. An Earth ground station, for instance, might rotate from the line of sight of a distant spacecraft.

Data over the space version of the internet travel in packets that travel in a hop by hop fashion. The data packets can wait out an interruption before resuming their journey.

Mocup, a European Space Agency robot fashioned from LEGO components. Photo Credit/ESA


“The demonstration showed the feasibility of using a new communications infrastructure to send commands to a surface robot from an orbiting spacecraft and receive images and data back from the robot,” said Badri Younes, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for space communications and navigation

Williams, the station’s current commander, interacted with Mocup, an ESA robot on a mock planetary surface at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany. Williams used the laptop to move Mocup forward and take photos that she monitored, allowing her to continue with her interactions.

“We can use this network to communicate with objects efficiently and securely,” says Kim Nergaard, Ground Segment and Operations Manager for the test at ESOC.  “The science data are now being analyzed to finalize the experiment and introduce new elements for the next tests.





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