Astronauts Using Augmented Reality Apps to Help With Repairs

Space technology is complicated. Whether it's a crewed spaceship or a large structure like the International Space Station (ISS), when astronauts need to maintain or replace certain components it's never a simple task. Currently, repairs like those performed on the ISS are overseen by staff on the ground, who have access to all the schematics and information about the components and instruct astronauts on what to do, one step at a time.

But for future missions, especially those eventually venturing out further into the solar system such as to Mars, there will be a significant communications delay between Earth and the astronauts which makes this approach impractical. Astronauts will need to be able to make repairs or changes by themselves, without so much immediate guidance from the ground. To help with this, astronauts on the ISS are testing out a new Augmented Reality (AR) system which can help in the inspection and maintenance of station equipment.

NASA astronaut and Expedition 65 Flight Engineer Megan McArthur wears the specialized Sidekick headset and tests using augmented reality aboard the International Space Station. NASA

The T2 Augmented Reality project uses familiar consumer hardware like Microsoft HoloLens AR googles plus specially-developed NASA software to give astronauts guidance and instructions for performing tasks like inspecting scientific equipment or maintaining on-station exercise equipment.

The idea is to load up the software with instructions for various operations which the crew can access when they need it. "AR tools hold the promise of allowing us to pre-package guidance and expertise," said International Space Station associate scientist Bryan Dansberry at NASA's Johnson Space Center. "The space station is the perfect platform to test out AR systems and refine these tools so they will be ready when future astronauts need them. Closer to home, these tests help to mature software and AR technology now so expertise and support are available in remote locations around the world."

So far, the system has been tested by JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who used it to maintain the space station's treadmill, and by European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet and NASA astronaut Megan McArthur.

The crew is planning another nine test sessions to try out the procedure and learn more about what does and doesn't work.

For now, the system will be used only for the treadmill, but in the future, this approach could be used to maintain other pieces of equipment and could even be used by astronauts traveling to the moon or Mars.

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