The thrilling landing of Perseverance on Mars on Thursday (Feb. 18) heralded the beginning of a busy few months for controllers on Earth. Percy is too far away for anyone on Earth to hand-steer, so instead, it will keep receiving commands and then will execute them by itself, far from any human help.
NASA is well-used to this kind of procedure — after all, it’s operated four other rovers on the surface of the Red Planet (Sojourner, Opportunity, Spirit and the still-running Curiosity that landed in 2012). But as much as we’ve learned from long-distance communications, there’s always the question — how could things change if an astronaut happened to be working alongside the robot, or in orbit above Mars?
As late as 2019, NASA was saying it had dreams of putting people on a Mars mission by 2035. The timeline may not hold (due to funding priorities, among other things), but missions with people seem inevitable as we’ve been talking about them seriously since practically the dawn of the space age. Already, the European Space Agency has done tests with astronauts on the International Space Station operating rovers on Earth, to prepare for a Martian eventuality in a few decades.
Back in 2019, for example, ISS astronaut Luca Parmitano manipulated a rover gripper on Earth that is just about as dexterous as a human hand. From his perch in space, he instructed the robot to pick up rock samples. He could “feel” the rocks through force-feedback control, much like advanced gaming joysticks or console controllers that let you feel vibrations as you control characters or objects in a video game.
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“Imagine the robot as Luca’s avatar on Earth, providing him with both vision and touch,” ESA engineer Kjetil Wormnes, who led the so-called Analog-1 test campaign on Earth, said in a statement at the time. “It was equipped with two cameras – one in the palm of its hand, the other in a maneuverable arm – to let Luca and the remotely-located scientists observe the environment and get a close-up on the rocks.”
It wasn’t exactly a seamless transfer from Earth to space, as there still was a little “latency” or delay. Parmitano had to take into account a nearly one-second delay between him sending the command from space and the rover actually executing it. But that is nothing compared to how much time NASA must account for when sending commands to a rover on Mars. On average, the time delay between planets — the sheer time it takes to send commands at light speed — is 20 minutes.
“For this exploration scenario, involving a relatively short time delay, we’ve been able to combine the relative advantages of humans and robots: a human for their ability to deal with complex and unstructured environments and decision making, and a dexterous robot able to cope with harsh environments and to precisely execute its operator’s commands,” ESA robotic engineer Thomas Krueger added in the statement.
So in the future, we may have astronauts able to use robots to work in more challenging environments. Rovers might be able to work atop hills, crawl into craters. Drones — Percy is carrying a test helicopter called Ingenuity — may also be able to fly around even more dangerous terrain, with an astronaut controlling from the surface or from orbit.
We’ll also get the chance to practice human-robot interactions on another world entirely, as multiple countries prepare to expand moon exploration, perhaps later in the decade. NASA’s Artemis program (which a few days ago, stepped back from its previous 2024 moon-landing deadline to give more time for tech development) plans to eventually incorporate private landers and robots under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program that will support human missions. So who knows, within a few years we may be able to practice Mars maneuvers on the moon.