A unique experiment by astronaut Bob Thirsk while aboard the International Space Station could someday help Canadian robots roam on distant planets.
He is scheduled to fly to the space station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft that launches from Kazakhstan on May 27.
Thirsk will operate a little rover-type vehicle nicknamed "Red" which is parked and waiting for his commands in a backlot of the Canadian Space Agency, south of Montreal.
The Canadian astronaut will manipulate it by remote control from the station and conduct several weeks worth of experiments with the robot, which looks like a thick suitcase on wheels.
Erick Dupuis, a space agency robotics manager, says the robot was bought off the shelf and modified with a number of sensors including a laser range-scanner.
"It's used to sense the surroundings of the robot," he said in an interview Monday as the rover conducted a test run. "It uses that information to plan its trajectory before it moves to a different location."
Experiment a test of Canadian technology
Dupuis says Thirsk will use an amateur ham radio located on board the space station to interact with the robot.
"The mission Bob will have to accomplish using the robot is to visit the entire terrain and look for one or two hot spots hidden in the terrain," Dupuis said.
Adding to the challenge is that Thirsk only has a 10-minute window to communicate with the rover down on the ground.
"In most cases, we may have one [window] per day or one every several days," Dupuis added.
The Avatar experiment, as it's called, will test several remote and navigational technologies that have been developed in Canada.
Dupuis said it will also be the first time an earthbound robot has been controlled from the space station.
Future impact on robotics missions
"The Avatar experiment is indeed a world premiere," he said.
"Normally it's the other way around, we have robots in space being controlled by operators on Earth."
Dupuis said the research will eventually lead to the operation of robots on other planets, either from a ground station located on Earth or from a spacecraft out in space.
"This is the first step to test some of these technologies," he said. "Only time will tell if we [Canada] will be known for our rovers in the future."
Space rover projects involving Canada and its space partners have already been carried out, including one in the Mojave Desert in Southern California.
"We are planning to have more of these activities for the development of rover prototypes," he said.
Two test sites in Canada are located at a crater on Devon Island in Nunavut and at the McGill Arctic Research station.