NASA astronaut Terry Virts has been living on the International Space Station since last November, so it would be reasonable for him to be missing his buddies back on Earth. On June 3, a "historic" handshake between Virts and an earthbound member of the European Space Agency proved that physical contact with people back home is a matter of grabbing a joystick.
With a screen streaming live video of ESA telerobotics specialist André Schiele mounted to his left, Virts reached out his right hand and gave the joystick in front of him a firm "handshake." Back on Earth in the Netherlands, Schiele had his hand wrapped around an identical joystick.
"The system worked even though the Space Station was flying over 5,000 km away," Schiele said in a post by the ESA. "It felt as though Terry was extending his arm down from space to shake my hand."
The real purpose of the new technology is not simply to make lonely astronauts feel a little more connected to home, however. Ultimately, the hope is that this will help researchers better explore the surface of Mars and perhaps even other planets. Since humans do not yet have the means to land on Mars and return to Earth, the ESA plans to use the system to allow astronauts orbiting a planet to vicariously explore its surface through robots.
It's already possible to operate a rover on Mars from Earth, but it is a long and tedious process. Currently, a command from Earth takes 12 minutes to reach Mars. With this new system, it took less than a second to transmit the handshake commands between the ISS and Earth.
The way the system works is that when one joystick out of the pair gets pushed or pulled, the other joystick mimics that force, providing feedback pressure. In this way, an astronaut can "feel" objects from hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away, an ability that could prove very useful when using a robot to collect samples of material from other planets.
This handshake was years in the making, and there are still many tests to come before the new system is ready for use on a planetary exploration mission. Next, astronauts will try to tell the difference between pieces of foam of varying stiffness from space, according to ESA.
Since the system can transmit signals over normal data cellphone networks, it could prove useful on Earth as well. The ESA points out that it may one day be possible to use this system to send robots into disaster sites while maintaining the ability to perform delicate tasks.