With upcoming explorations on the Moon and eventually Mars, NASA is experimenting with tools that can increase astronaut independence in space. This would help them operate spacecrafts without help from the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

This is being done because communication delays from Earth can last for really long. NASA’s T2 Augmented Reality (T2AR) project demonstrates how station crew members can inspect and maintain and use equipment critical to maintaining crew health and achieving research goals with no assistance from ground teams.

To begin with the T2AR activities in our orbit in April, astronaut Soichi Noguchi of Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was given the task to maintain one of space station crew’s equipment – the T2 treadmill.

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The inspection procedure is typically available as a PDF document to be accessed on a computer or tablet, at present, which can be hard to hold while also operating tools or flashlights or examining equipment in a tight space.

This time, no extra handheld instructions or communication with ground teams in Mission Control were necessary since the information was all in plain sight. Using the Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality (AR) goggles and armed with novel procedure tracking software NASA developed, Noguchi had step-by-step guidance and cues to assist in the work without referring to a separate screen, said NASA.

T2AR is the first in-space operational use of the HoloLens in combination with custom-built AR software, which helps cosmonauts perform such tasks with ease.

This investigation was done after the Sidekick experiment by former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly conducted in 2016.

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This novel demonstration used 3D directional cues to direct the astronaut’s gaze to the proper work sites and displayed the procedure instructions. The device followed an astronaut’s verbal instructions to navigate procedures and displayed AR cues and procedure text over the hardware as appropriate for the procedure step being performed. The system also provided supplemental information, such as instructional videos and system overlays, to assist in performing the procedure.

“AR tools hold the promise of allowing us to pre-package guidance and expertise,” says International Space Station associate scientist Bryan Dansberry at Johnson. “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.”

Since that first activity with Noguchi, astronaut Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency) and NASA astronaut Megan McArthur have also used the AR application aboard the space station. The tests provided researchers with information about how the technology does and does not work to assist crew inspection maintenance procedures.

With the completion of this maintenance activity, nine more test sessions remain in the technology demonstration plan.

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