The Mars landscape: an extremely dry terrain of rust-red dust, scattered rocks and ancient grooves. Unyielding and inhospitable, no one has set foot on its surface-that is, no human. Zooming along this forbidding site, circumnavigating jagged stones and yawning craters, a boxy and toy-like, four-wheeled rover scans the terrain for a possible geothermal source. Remotely assisted by an astronaut orbiting the red planet, the rover is an autonomous worker, the perfect pilgrim for a harsh and hostile environment.
But there is a caveat to this scenario: this Mars landscape is actually a simulated environment, called the Mars Emulation Terrain, located on the grounds of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in St. Hubert, Quebec. The astronaut communicating with the robot was orbiting Earth from the International Space Station. The rover, affectionately dubbed "Red", and the Terrain, were one-third the scale of the objects they have been modelled after. They were part of the Avatar EXPLORE experiment, a project designed by the Space Technologies team at the Canadian Space Agency.
Avatar EXPLORE was the second in a series of experiments that tested and developped remote communications between human operators and robots in the context of space exploration. Avatar promises to advance operational protocols, and to evolve CSA-developed communications and robot autonomy software.
During Expedition 20/21, launched on May 27th, 2009, Canadian astronaut Dr. Robert (Bob) Thirsk interacted with "Red" while aboard the International Space Station. The goal was to guide the rover to a heat source hidden on the simulated Mars environment. In real life this source could have methane, or opal, or a unique geological feature. For the sake of simplicity, the Avatar team decided to simulate a geothermal source.
A central challenge was the constraints put on communication. File exchanges were conducted only a few times per day to simulate a low-bandwidth channel, which is a common feature of planetary operations. This forces all interactions to be conducted offline. Dr. Thirsk analysed the telemetry files received from "Red" and prepared a command file that was sent to Earth. Once the command file was received, "Red" opened it and executed its instructions. All the data acquired during execution was stored and sent back to Dr. Thirsk for another iteration of the process.
Dr. Thirsk evaluated data through a Graphical User Interface rendered on a laptop. This interface featured a map of the MET and displayed the location of the rover. "Red" transmitted a 360 degree scan of its surroundings, creating a visual image of the terrain in three dimensions. Bob had to analyze this data and designate destinations for the rover to navigate to autonomously. "Red" was instructed to take more laser scans and thermal images to locate the heat source. The scans were blended into a composite of 3-D topographical data and 2-D thermal images. Bob created strategies according to this data, and, as if playing a game of high-tech "Battleship", used deduction to nudge "Red" towards the thermal target.
As humans travel further into the solar system, we will increasingly rely on robots to access difficult environments. Avatar's Mars simulation will one day become a reality. By contributing Canadian technology and experience now, we are improving our ability and capabilities to play a vital and dynamic role in future space exploration.