In late October, International Space Station (ISS) Expedition 33 commander Sunita Williams used a NASA-developed laptop aboard the station to control a LEGO Mindstorm robot, located at the European Space Agency (ESA) European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany. Using a “space internet,” she was able to control the robot in real time despite being in orbit at an altitude of 230 miles (370 km).
Manned missions to explore the Solar System haven’t progressed very far since the days of the Apollo program because sending astronauts into space is difficult, expensive and extremely dangerous. This is especially true for landings, where the failure of a single system can result in death on an alien world. Robot probes are cheaper and safer, but limited in what they can accomplish.
One idea that NASA and ESA are looking at involves sending astronauts on missions to orbit planets like Mars or Venus, and then sending down robots that can be controlled remotely. Avoiding landings saves a great deal of money and avoids a lot of hazards, but by having astronauts in orbit they can control robots much more easily than mission control could from hundreds of millions of miles away.