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ISS astronaut will get to drive and 'feel' a rover on Earth

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It's going to be a little while before humanity sets foot on Mars, but in the meantime NASA has a bundle of robots exploring the planet for us. The data they're collecting is valuable, but now researchers want to give their operators greater control. Specifically, they're interested in force feedback -- timely vibrations that would help astronauts carry out difficult tasks remotely. The European Space Agency (ESA) has developed a new rover with this in mind -- the "Interact Centaur," which has an onboard camera and two force-sensitive arms. ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen is headed to the International Space Station (ISS) on September 2nd and, five days later, he'll be controlling one that's back on Earth.

His mission is to guide the robot around ESA's ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, before locating an "operations task board" and successfully securing a metal pin. The component has a tight mechanical fit and a tolerance "about 150 micrometres," or less than a sixth of a millimeter. With sight alone, this operation would be tricky, because it's hard for drivers to tell how much force they're applying and whether the robot is facing unexpected resistance. Rovers normally have rigid limbs, but on the Interact Centaur they'll flex and send that information back to Mogensen so he can "feel" what's happening.

The end goal is to develop a robot that can explore Mars and be controlled remotely by astronauts orbiting the surface. "Flying astronauts around the planet would overcome the problem of time delay, extending human intelligence and intuition to planetary exploration without the danger and expense of landing," the ESA says. In addition, researchers believe the Interact Centaur could be used one day to install telescopes and prepare a human base on the far side of the moon. In this scenario, the operator would be able to control the robot from Earth -- a place slightly more comfortable and convenient than the ISS.

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