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The European Space Agency researches technologies that will allow humans to learn more about space and eventually explore new worlds.
That research relies on cutting-edge advances in fields such as robotics, laser-based communications and 3D printing. Here’s what the agency and its partners have been cooking up in their labs.
This car-sized rover is Eurobot, which will be remote controlled by ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen during his 10-day flight to the International Space Station in September.
From 400km above the rover, Mogensen will issue commands to move the rover and simulate tasks on other planets, such as moving boxes and unfurling solar arrays. He will also control a second rover, which will beam video to the station so Andreas can monitor Eurobot.
In the future astronauts could use similar technology to control robots on planets from orbit, setting up bases or performing scientific research.
Fancy controlling a robot hand in space? ESA is sourcing technologies to allow humans to control distant robotic limbs as if they were part of their body.
Shadow Hand reproduces the motion of its human operator and incorporates a force-feedback sense of touch and pressure to allow it to precisely grip and manipulate objects.
In a similar vein to Shadow Hand, this lightweight, 10kg, exoskeleton allows the wearer to control a robot. The users’ actions can be transmitted more than 400km to a robotic arm, which will replicate the wearer’s movements.
Tiny cubesats can make it into orbit at a fraction of $500m it can cost to put a large satellite in space.
Just 30x10x10 cm in size, the PICosatellite for Atmospheric and Space Science Observations (Picasso) cubesat will investigate the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere.
Picasso will measure the distribution of ozone in the stratosphere and profile the temperature of the mesosphere and the electron density in the ionosphere.
When it launches next year, Picasso will be part of a network of 50 cubesats probing largely unexplored layers of Earth’s atmosphere.
Laser communication terminal
This terminal will help transmit data between spacecraft and satellites in different orbits.
It will be part of the European Data Relay System, a planned constellation of satellites that will sit in geosynchronous orbit and allow near-continuous communications between orbiting craft and ground stations.
The terminals are capable of transmitting 1.8 Gbit/s of data between between lower orbits and geostationary orbit.
Brought together by lasers
The ESA’s space freighter ATV Georges Lemau00eetre tests new rendezvous sensors as it approaches the International Space Station.
The Laser Infrared Imaging Sensors (LIRIS) being tested are a step towards a system that could allow future spacecraft to dock with or land on ‘uncooperative’ targets, such as orbiting debris or a Mars sample capsule.
On future missions, infrared cameras and lidar sensors – the light equivalent of radar – would scan the targets while onboard computers processed the data using new guidance navigation and control software.
At 30 km from the target, infrared cameras would be used before lidar took over from 3.5 km out to allow docking.
Reaching across space
Helping ESA to develop a feel for how astronauts should remote control robots is this Haptics-1 experiment.
ESA wants a better idea of how much force is necessary when controlling bots carrying out delicate tasks on planet surfaces or outside spaceships, such as picking up rock samples or installing equipment.
During his 10-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS), ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen will use this force-feedback joystick in tests that will analyse the effects on human motor control when exposed to long-term weightlessness, and how feedback feels in orbit.
Hunting for flaws
Embedded in these resin discs are clues as to whether future space missions will succeed or fail.
These are micro-sections taken from printed circuit boards (PCBs), being considered for use in planned ESA projects.
Defects in the PCBs, or in the soldering process used to attach components, could impair satellites, or even lead to the total loss of a mission.
ESA’s Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory – based at the ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands – inspect the discs using powerful diagnostic tools, including optical and scanning electron microscopes capable of magnifying at hundreds-of-thousands scale.
Through the astronaut's eyes
This headset should allow mission control to look over an astronaut’s shoulder.
Seen here on ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen, the headset can stream live video to mission control so they can guide astronauts through the many tasks they perform on board the International Space Station, where they are charged with research, maintenance and grabbling spacecraft with robotic arms.
There is still much we don’t know about how low-gravity environments affect humans.
This eye-tracking device was used in experiments to help answer questions such as ‘how do astronauts in space cope when the inner ear can no longer rely on gravity?’.
The helmet fed data to high-performance image-processing chips similar to those found in consumer cameras.
New ways to build
3D printing offers engineers ways to create objects that could not be built in any other way.
This single-piece casing for an optical instrument for Earth observations is an example of the extremely complicated shapes can be manufactured without the need for joins or welds. For certain objects, 3D printing can also use less raw material and energy than traditional manufacturing, and require a reduced number of steps.
ESA’s product assurance & safety department is looking at how 3D printing can be applied to space missions
Buzz Aldrin gets to grips with robotics
Pioneering moonwalker Buzz Aldrin inspects a telerobotic arm, which was later used to allow a TV presenter in the UK to shake hands with a colleague 450km away at ESA’s technical base in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.
ESA is engaged in ongoing efforts to develop telerobotic force-feedback to enable precision control of robots in space and, eventually, manipulation of rovers on planets by astronauts in orbit.
A bench at ESA’s Opto-Electronics Laboratory in the Netherlands, where the space agency tests the lasers it uses in missions.
ESA uses lasers for a wide range of tasks in space, including remote sensing, communications and interferometry.
Science in space
A long exposure photo of ESA’s space laboratory Columbus – part of the International Space Station.