UK astronaut Tim Peake will get to drive a rover on Mars shortly.
Or, at least, that is the scenario he is facing in a challenging experiment.
In reality, the Briton, currently on the International Space Station, will command a robot to roll around a giant sandpit in Stevenage that simulates the surface of the Red Planet.
It is part of a European Space Agency project that aims to learn how astronauts can control remote systems on other worlds.
Known as Meteron (Multi-Purpose End-To-End Robotic Operation Network), the programme has already seen Danish ISS crewman Andreas Mogensen get a robot on Earth to put pegs in a series of holes.
But Major Tim’s task takes things up a notch.
He will drive a prototype Mars rover into a darkened “cave” to find and map a number of targets.
It will be a test for man and machine – and all the connections in between.
For starters, Major Tim will be floating inside the space station which is orbiting at 27,000km/h. He has to keep himself steady as he looks at relayed video and other information on the screens of two laptops.
Then there is the issue of latency. His control link has to transmit down to Earth, bounce through numerous communications nodes, before reaching the robot in its simulation “Mars Yard” at the Airbus Defence and Space Company.
It means any command – and any feedback – will have several seconds of delay. It is quite likely that the link will also drop out on occasions.
Nonetheless, there is high confidence Major Tim can complete his objectives within the allotted time (90 minutes). He has already demonstrated finesse in robotics control when he used a mechanical arm earlier this month to capture and berth a cargo ship positioned alongside the ISS.
In many respects, though, Friday’s “Mars game” could be harder: when he grabbed the freighter it was positioned just outside the window of the space station.
Both the rovers on the Red Planet today, and those planned in coming years, use a high level of autonomy. Once instructed to go to a location, the vehicles will sense their surroundings and compute the most efficient route. But it is a very slow process.
The scenario suggested by Friday’s simulation is the possibility that we might one day have an astronaut in orbit above Mars who could assist a surface robot in investigating a location engineers would normally try to avoid.
Going into a cave would be extremely risky. The lack of light would make it harder for the sensors on the autonomous navigation system to discern hazards. And with no sunlight falling on the robot’s solar panels, the amount of energy available to operate in the cave might very quickly become an issue.
Having a human in the loop could help speed up decision-making, ensuring the rover completes its science investigations with enough time to get back outside the cave and start recharging its batteries.
Airbus DS is leading the development of the rover that Esa will send to Mars in 2018 or, more likely, in 2020. As part of this project, it uses a number of “breadboard” robots to test flight hardware and software.
For Friday’s experiment, Major Tim will control the breadboard known as Bridget.
He will command the vehicle to drive up to targets inside the cave that have been marked with ultraviolet paint. Illuminated by a light on Bridget, he will centre these markings in the camera view and then notify ground control.
A webcast of the trial will be streamed on the Airbus DS website and thePrincipia website of Major Tim himself. Updates will also be posted on the Twitter feeds of @esaoperations and @esa_meteron.
Major Tim is due to take control of Bridget after 15:00 BST (14:00 GMT).