Remote possibilities

Posted in Marine industry talk

One of the most significant experiments for astronaut and cosmic witterer Tim Peake during his seven months in the International Space Station involved testing the remote controls of the free roaming vehicle ‘Bridget’, as it sought out five objects in the dark 250 miles below.

Before drone enthusiasts stifle a yawn, seven months is the average length of a seafaring tour of duty, and the voyage also offered ample opportunity to feed Tim’s seemingly insatiable appetite for social media.

If nobody can hear you scream out there, Tim demonstrated that lonely nights can flicker by in a livestreaming frenzy of water ping pong, egg-scrambling in space, marathon running on the spot, and even a Brits appearance alongside Adele. The good Major appeared intent on bringing a new meaning to the term advertising space.

In between these social and other media engagements Peake was tasked with 250 serious experiments to enable future missions to Mars, the centrepiece of which involved Bridget.

Rather disturbingly, in the run up to the drone trial, the UK Space Agency’s house blogger revealed that Tim had not been briefed in advance, confiding “Congratulations, you now officially know more than Tim does!” With a cheerful sign off, the blogger added: “I hope he doesn’t spend too much time on the internet, reading blogs and all that.”

Back on earth, as proceedings got underway, The Guardian gamely described the ‘Mars Yard’ around which Bridget roamed as “an impressive place, complete with sand, rocks, uneven surfaces and a mural representing the Martian horizon…as if it is dusk on the Red Planet”. The majority of Her Majesty’s press appeared more traumatised to find the European Space Agency’s centre of excellence to be a darkened warehouse 28 miles north of their London firesides in a Stevenage business park.

As a Stevenage native, I can reveal that the town has built more than 100 satellites over the last 30 years. I can also reveal that the Martian horizon came courtesy of the props department of the Gordon Craig Theatre’s, and that Airbus Defence & Space staffers take their lunch break at the ‘Lunchpad’. I can also disclose that Tim ‘hit the rocks’

The ‘yard’ actually occupies a former British Aerospace site where my father once found employment as a Quality Control Engineer specialising in guidance systems.

Dad, who once parked his bike a cardboard stone’s throw away from the Mars Yard site, might well have joined the ‘local Airbus engineers’ who stepped in on day to free the rambling robot from a target boulder. He may even have felt tempted to award Bridget a decisive quality control ‘X’, over-ruling the burbled excuses of software glitches and the to-be-expected drop-outs in the far north beyond London’s orbital M25.

Certainly, he would have disputed reports of Major Tim ‘racing’ through his tasks as the UV light shone from the rover’s masthead picking out its painted targets. But then, his focus would have been what was happening on the ground, and not Meteron – the Multi-Purpose End-To-End Robotic Operation Network whose performance was the test’s true focus.

“On a real mission, this could have been a serious situation with hundreds of millions of pounds at stake,” the Guardian reported, before adding: “Listening to the voice loop from the control room, you’d never have guessed that anything had gone awry.”

One day, we are told, astronauts will orbit Mars with surface robots exploring below, where engineers fear to tread. For the time being, Tim’s seven month odyssey suggests that crew on board potentially free roaming vehicles can rest easy in their bunks.

Meanwhile, the Gordon Craig Theatre is still taking bookings for the revival of ‘That’ll be the Day’.

Published 29 July 2016

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