The Analog-1 experiment saw ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano control a robot in The Netherlands as he was circling Earth on the International Space Station. The experiment proved that conducting geological surveys of planets from orbit are possible and, when time is of the essence, could provide an advantage over operating a robot from a mission control on Earth.

As Luca scouted the simulated lunar terrain in a hangar near ESA’s technical heart ESTEC, he was in constant communication with a science team at ESA’s astronaut centre near Cologne, Germany. Together they could see the view from cameras on the rover and collaborated to pick the best rocks for scientific merit.

Having picked up a number of rocks at each site in less than an hour, the experiment was over for Luca, but the next step in this robot-human exploration scenario is an analysis of the rocks themselves to send data to the researchers who are piecing together the story of our Solar System.

Luca inspecting a cave during Pangaea 2016. Credits: ESA–L.Ricci.

Astronauts on the Apollo missions that walked on the Moon were trained in geology to help them understand the lunar landscape, and ESA has a specific planetary geology course for astronauts called Pangaea. Luca took part in the 2016 edition of Pangaea, with a field trip to the Canary Island’s Lanzarote.

The scientific coordinator of the Pangaea training Matteo Massironi from the University of Padova was in contact with Luca on the Space Station and provided scientific feedback during the experiment.

ESA’s Meteron system engineer lead Jessica Grenouilleau commented after the experiment “We benefitted from Luca’s previous training through our Pangaea programme, giving astronauts practical experience in geology, it helped tremendously in having an efficient discussion between the crew and the scientists.”

Two personnel from Pangaea, Sam Payler at EAC and Riccardo Pozzobon from the University of Padova and the Pangaea-X expedition team, Angelo Rossi, Professor of Earth and Planetary Science at the Jacobs University of Bremen, Germany, were in The Netherlands before the experiment, to provide scientific rationale for the sampling sites and rocks arrangement, and to observe its implementation, map the sites and collected samples.

After Luca had wrapped up on the Space Station, Angelo  and Riccardo took the rocks and scanned them using photogrammetry techniques on a smartphone. In minutes a full three-dimensional textured scan of the rocks can be made and the data stored for analysis using the Qlone app developed by EyeCue Vision Technologies LTD. More images were collected with cameras on site and an indoor-flying drone to produce a 3D model with centimetre precision of the whole experiment site.

Photogrammetry is the science of getting precise measurements and three-dimensional data from at least two photographs. This technique can be applied to construct a 3D model of any scene from any source of image, from standard digital cameras to cameras on Earth-orbiting satellites and has been used in editions of ESA’s astronaut courses on CAVES and Pangaea.

The photogrammetry was done by hand this time, but rovers can include the hardware to do this automatically. ESA’s ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin that is set for launch next year has a miniature laboratory that can heat samples and sniff out their chemical components. But the time delay in communications mean that the distance the Analog-1 rover travelled would have taken two weeks instead of an hour.

During Analog-1 a member of the ExoMars team was also present to observe and test the same mission preparation, execution and evaluation  software that will be used on the martian mission. Called 3DROCS, the software positions the rover in reconstructed elevated terrain maps to show operators areas of danger and the paths a robot can safely follow. This Analog-1 experiment proved that future missions could see a collaboration of rovers and humans, speeding up the process and achieving more.

This summer will see Luca back on Earth and operate the rover around Mount Etna in Sicily, Italy. This second experiment will simulate the aspects of space, incorporating the delays in communication, but place the rover in real-world conditions to put the science to the test in the dusty, muddy, real world.

From left: Thomas Krueger of ESA’s telerobotics lab, Bill Carey from Meteron, robotics engineer Levin Gerdes and Eurocom Antonio Fortunato at the control room of ESA’s astronaut centre near Cologne, Germany, during the Analog-1 experiment. Credits: ESA.