Barely got off the lander, which remains in the background to make the scene more realistic, the robot performs its first movements on the black ground. Its wheels slip a little, it moves its head from left to right with its camera eyes and moves little by little. Her long arm extends, her hand opens and grips a stone that seems beautiful and interesting to her, like a child collecting colored marbles on the ground.
A few meters from him, his twin installs antennas that will allow to receive frequencies from the distant universe. Together they collect information from the terrain to draw a lunar map. The two robots wave to each other from a distance, as if to say “everything is fine”, and continue their work.
“Here, on Etna, we test our robot-rovers, because they are built on wheels, in real conditions, on ground that is very similar to lunar conditions, that’s why we chose to come here with our machines, because the ground is black like that of the Moon”explains Armin Wedler, mission manager and robotics engineer at the German space agency, DLR.
For several days, Etna has been transformed into a huge experimental field for several dozen scientists and engineers from the European Space Agency (Esa) and the DLR. You have to climb up to two thousand six hundred meters above sea level, at the foot of the smoking crater, to discover these incredible robots.
“Volcanic sand has an identical composition to lunar soil“explains astrophysicist Bernard Foing, considered the father of the first European mission to the Moon, the Smart 1 mission between 2003 and 2006. “Here, we are preparing to build a lunar village where there will be scientific experiments to study the Moon, but also do astronomy, cosmology to observe the planets and also the Earth.” These robots, which weigh around thirty kilos, could be part of ESA’s future lunar mission, transported to the Gateway orbital station which should be built from 2024.
Robotics in action
On the Sicilian volcano, ESA also wants to assess the system that will allow astronauts in orbit to remotely control the rover that will explore the lunar surfaces. With its three hundred kilos, Interact is more imposing than the two twin rovers, which is why it is only used for terrestrial experiments.
Interact arrived on Etna to test a haptic device, in other words, a system that allows the robot’s controller to sense exactly what the machine is touching. Thomas Reiter, former astronaut of the European Agency, has been practicing for hours with the mechanical arm that serves as his joystick. ” The next time we go to the Moon it won’t be to take a few steps, we want to stay there for long periods of time, and the next step will be the planet Marshe assures. I was 11 when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, and I get chills when I think back!”
From a hotel room transformed into a control room, located twenty-three kilometers away from the volcano, Thomas Reiter’s hand becomes the hand installed on Interact. The force he exerts on the joystick is exactly the force the robotic hand will use to grab a stone or pick up sand. “For this return to the Moon, we must be technically ready, and Etna is perfect for practicing and for testing the instruments that will help gain scientific knowledge about our satellite.”adds the German astronaut.
The objective is obviously to send the robots alone on the lunar ground and to control them remotely from the Gateway station module. “We use principles of artificial intelligence, so we stuff these robots with information that they can use. For example to choose one stone and not another, when the scientists of the lunar missions will need to collect a sample“, explains Benoit Putzeys, a 26-year-old Luxembourg engineer who works for Esa in The Hague. “We hope that somehow, at some point, the enormous amount of information he possesses will allow him to discern certain actions without command.“, adds the young man, who is testing his program for the first time on real ground, far from his laboratory.
The tourists who go up in groups on Etna stop, curious, they think they are dealing with a shooting for the cinema. It is true that robots have a little Star Wars side. These vacationers do not suspect that all the experiments carried out on the volcano in recent days have a very specific goal: to faithfully reproduce what could happen when the lunar mission of ESA – organized in partnership with NASA and the Space Agency Japanese, Jaxa – will be launched, from 2024 or 2025 at the latest.
“The robots will install these kinds of boxes in very specific places, to build a network of sensorsexplains Benoît Foing. Especially on the far side of the Moon, an unexplored place where there is no frequency pollution like on Earth. These receivers equipped with antennas will be able to pick up noises coming from other planets and perhaps, one can dream, from the very very distant Universe.
On Tuesday on Etna, the antennas of the LoFar system thus picked up a frequency from Jupiter. “Jupiter is brighter than the Sun in the radio domain and at times, when Jupiter’s satellite Io crosses its magnetic field, it emits noises. This happened yesterday (Wednesday, Editor’s note), at 1 a.m., when Jupiter was rising. So we did a night mission to observe and capture the burst of Jupiter.”
Everywhere, on the five hundred square meters of volcanic land where the mission is taking place, the enthusiasm is palpable. Most of the engineers present are not 30 years old. “NASA’s Americans are more advanced with their roversadmits Alin Albu Schäffer of the robotics department of the German space agency. But the idea of having the different robots work together is our strong point!”
One of the robots stops just in front of an obstacle, it examines the ground and sends the information to its twin to indicate the new route to take and avoid the obstacle. It is not a detail that the mission’s project is called Arches, in French, “network of autonomous robots to help modern societies”. Because after having walked, or rather rolled on the Moon, these robots stuffed with artificial intelligence will return to Earth to help, for example, to clear war grounds with precision thanks to their hands or to sort waste. Less glorious actions than following in Armstrong’s footsteps, of course, but which ultimately could also be a big step for humanity. Even for a robot!