Just as remotely operated vehicles help humans explore the depths of the ocean from above, NASA has begun studying how a similar approach may one day help astronauts explore other worlds. NASA tested the Surface Telerobotics exploration concept, in which an astronaut in an orbiting spacecraft remotely operates a robot on a planetary surface. In the future, astronauts orbiting other planetary bodies, such as Mars, asteroids, or the Moon, could use this approach to perform work on the surface using robotic avatars.

During the test, Expedition 36 Flight Engineer Chris Cassidy of NASA remotely operated the K10 planetary rover in the Roverscape – an outdoor robotic test area the size of two football fields located at NASA Ames – hundreds of miles below on Earth's surface from his post aboard the International Space Station (ISS). For more than three hours, Cassidy used the robot to perform a survey of the Roverscape’s rocky, lunar-like terrain.

These tests represent the first time NASA’s open-source Robot Application Programming Interface Delegate  (RAPID) robot data messaging system was used to control a robot from space. RAPID originally was developed by NASA’s Human-Robotic Systems project and is a set of software data structures and routines that simplify the process of communicating information between different robots and their command and control systems. RAPID has been used with a wide variety of systems including rovers, walking robots, free-flying robots and robotic cranes.

The primary objective of the Surface Telerobotics testing is to collect engineering data from astronauts aboard the space station, the K10 robot and data communication links. This will allow engineers to characterize the system and validate previous ground tests. The primary goal of the project is to understand how human and robot activities can be coordinated to improve crew safety, enhance science activities and increase mission success while also reducing cost, risk, and consumables, such as fuel and oxygen, during future exploration missions.

The K10 robot is a four-wheel drive, four-wheel steer robot that stands about 4.5 feet tall, weighs about 220 pounds and can travel about three feet per second (a little slower than the average person's walking pace). For the Surface Telerobotics tests, K10 is equipped with multiple cameras and a 3D scanning laser system to perform survey work, as well as a mechanism to deploy the simulated radio antenna.