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    Why Astronauts Are Driving RC Cars from Space

    Written by

    Amy Shira Teitel


    NASA's K10 rover. via

    If you thought RC cars were fun when you were a kid, they just got more awesome. During a space technology test on June 17, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy drove an RC rover around a simulated lunar landscape at the agency's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. Better yet, he was driving from the International Space Station. 

    The RC rover was one of NASA’s K10 planetary rovers. It’s fairly small, weighing just 176 pounds, and its range is limited to its batteries, as it doesn't have a solar array. But it’s still a pretty powerful explorer.

    The K10 drives with a passive rocker suspension system that allows it to maneuver around moderately rough outdoor terrain, climb hills with as steep as a 45 degree slope, and crawl over obstacles up to eight inches high. Granted, it does all these things slowly; the K10 moves at walking speed, which is about three feet per second. 

    During the test up on the ISS, Cassidy received telemetry and real-time video data from the rover and monitored its actions via virtual terrain displays. He watched, virtually, as the rover followed his commands and made a brief site survey and began deploying its radio antenna. 

    There’s more to learn in the realm of controlling robots on a planet from space, but this first-of-its-kind test drive of the technology and skills test was a success. Which opens the door for a really interesting prospect: humans in space controlling rovers on the Moon, asteroids, or Mars. 

    NASA has, at various points in the past, played with the idea of a manned mission to the L2 Earth-Moon Lagrange point, a point beyond the Earth’s orbit where a spacecraft would be gravitationally locked until it fired its engines to come home. A crew safely at L2 could remotely guide a series of rovers like K10 to establish and deploy science instruments on the Moon’s far side, negating the need for a tricky, communications-free landing (the Moon would block communications between NASA and a crew in this case). 

    The L2 Lagrange point is where the James Webb Space Telescope is going to be. via

    In the case of an asteroid mission, having real time robots controlled by a nearby crew would enable NASA to explore a rock that might be too small to land on. 

    There’s also the possibility that a crew could go into orbit around Mars and guide a Curiosity-type rover in real time. This would negate the need for a manned landing—the science fiction dream that has so far proved to be a big engineering challenge—and overcome the hurdle of a seven-minute time delay between the two planets.

    Currently, conversations between Mars rover and driver are comically slow. Every time the rover needs to step and check with its human what it ought to do next, hours can go by. Even with all its built in safety features, Curiosity, the fastest rover ever sent to Mars, moves about 1.5 inches per second. With a crew in orbit to shorten the time between driver command and rover execution, we could explore a lot more a lot faster.

    It would be like the time the Soviets sent the Lunokhod rovers to the Moon and just drove them as far as possible to take advantage of their battery life. The mission didn't last that long, but they covered a lot of ground! 

    This recent test was the first in a series NASA plans to run with rovers robotically controlled from space. The idea is to learn what kind of communications delays might affect commands reaching a rover from hundreds of miles above. Then it will hopefully be on to robotically controlled rovers in deep space from space, which would be about the greatest RC car ever.