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Astronaut drives rover on Earth -- from space

Traveling in orbit at over 17,000 miles per hour, an ESA astronaut maneuvers a remote-controlled vehicle in the Netherlands to demonstrate "space Internet."

The Eurobot getting its commands from hundreds of miles away. Video screenshot by Michael Franco/CNET

If you ever had a remote-controlled car as a kid, you know that driving the thing around isn't always the smoothest operation. The legs of my mom's kitchen table certainly saw their share of accidents from my imprecise maneuvers.

So, imagine trying to operate a car-sized rover from about 250 miles away, while moving at over 17,000 miles per hour. That's what one European Space Agency astronaut did last week (see video below).

From his home aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Alexander Gerst took the ESA's Eurobot rover through a series of maneuvers on the ground in the Netherlands. Gerst had the rover move around and take pictures, which were then beamed back to him on the space station.

"This was the first time Eurobot was controlled from space as part of an experiment to validate communication and operations technologies that will ultimately be used for future human exploration missions," said Kim Nergaard, head of Advanced Mission Concepts at the ESA's European Space Operations Center, in a statement.

The communication link between the rover and the ISS happened over "a new network that stores commands when signals are interrupted if direct line of sight with Earth or the surface unit is lost, forwarding them once contact is re-established," said the ESA. "In the future, controlling robots on Mars or the Moon will require a sort of 'space Internet' to send telecommands and receive data. Such networks must also accommodate signal delays across vast distances, considering that astronauts and rovers on Mars will have to be linked with mission controllers on Earth."

The Eurobot rover which Gerst controlled is a lander which may someday find itself exploring the moon or Mars. It can be operated either by an onboard passenger, or -- as just demonstrated -- remotely by an astronaut in a nearby ship or on a nearby planet. the rover can hold up to 330 pounds and has two robotic arms that can be fitted with a variety of tools, according to the ESA. It also has advanced vision systems, including a 3D camera, and force and torque sensors.

If only the remote control car I had as a kid was equipped with that type of gear. I'm sure my mom's furniture would have benefited greatly!