Today, an Astronaut in Space Will 'Shake Hands' With Someone on Earth

It’s a joystick to joystick kinda moment.

Emiko Jozuka

Emiko Jozuka

The joystick on Earth at ESTEC. Image: ESA-M. Aiple

The first ever space-to-Earth "handshake" in human history is scheduled to happen Wednesday evening—though for the moment it's just between two joysticks.

"What we're doing today for the first time ever is sending real-time data from from a robotic joystick on the ground to a guy in space, who will receive force feedback along with video," André Schiele, the head of European Space Agency (ESA) telerobotics and haptics laboratory, told me over the phone. "It's the first interactive space-to-Earth experiment in human history."

The Haptics-2 experiment aims to transmit a human sense of touch to and from space. In a nutshell, NASA astronaut Terry Virts will move a force-reflecting joystick—which basically mimics the movements of a video gaming joystick—in the International Space Station. This force will be transmitted via satellites, and received by a researcher on the ground at ESA's ESTEC technical centre in the Netherlands, who'll move an identical joystick in response. And there you have your "handshake".

Although this sounds simple enough, the experiment requires sophisticated control software, partly because you're looking at transmitting a signal between ESTEC and the ISS that will have to pass through NASA's ground system as well as via satellites 36,000 km over the equator. This means that the joystick controllers will be dealing with a signal lag of around 0.8 seconds as the information travels from the ground, through the satellites, then up into space, and vice versa.

This experiment is a follow-up to the Haptics-1 experiment back in January 2015, which saw NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore perform a one-way robotic force reflection test up aboard the ISS. In that test, Wilmore moved around a joystick in a weightless environment, but the act was not reciprocated back on earth.

"It's the first handshake between joysticks, but that's only the public event," said Schiele, and explained that he and his team would be investigating the degrees of force that a human can differentiate between up in space after the "handshake" demo was over.

Schiele said that the on-ground astronaut would be moving the joystick against a variety of different materials to find out if Virts, up in space, could tell the difference between soft materials such as foam and hard materials such as metal.

The goal of the experiment is to pave the way for more advanced robotic control over even greater distances in the future. "You can envision humans in orbit controlling human-like robotics on the surface of Mars," said Schiele.

In September 2015, the telerobotics team is aiming to control an entire robotic vehicle with the haptic tech up in space to retrieve then insert a metal object into a metal casing. "In September, astronaut [Andreas] Mogensen will control a rover, drive it through rough terrain, then free a metal object and insert it into a container to show that we can conduct a more complex sequence of tasks. This task requires haptic dexterity," said Schiele.

The eventual aim is to show that more complex structures can be assembled from the station telerobotically.