LONDON-British astronaut Tim Peake drove a rover on Mars on Friday - or at least pretended to by test-driving the exploration vehicle on earth remotely from space.

From the International Space Station (ISS) some 250 miles above earth, the European Space Agency astronaut guided rover prototype ‘Bridget’ around a cave set up in an area simulating Mars’s sandy and rocky surface in Stevenage, England.

The experiment was part of the Multi-Purpose End-To-End Robotic Operation Network (METERON) programme looking at how astronauts can work robots from space. Last year, Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen guided from the ISS a rover on earth to insert a peg into a hole. For Friday’s mission at the Mars Yard Test Area, Peake was told just before the experiment that he would have to enter the cave and find painted targets before exiting it in 90 minutes. He had to ensure Bridget came within two metres of each target, centred it, mapped it and alerted ground control.

‘We’re inside the cave and the first target has been identified,’ Peake could be heard telling mission control in Germany during the experiment which was live-streamed. Delays between instruction and execution were expected, as were breaks in transmission.

One of his big obstacles was time. His control link had to transmit down to Earth, bounce through numerous communications nodes, before reaching the robot in its simulation ‘Mars yard’ at the Airbus Defence and Space Company. It meant every command - and all the feedback - had several seconds of associated delay. His link also had some drop-outs. At one point, he hit a big rock, which required the intervention of local Airbus engineers to sort out; and then there were some software glitches on the laptops he was using in orbit.

But despite all this, Major Tim managed to race through his tasks, finding and mapping five targets in the cave. These targets were boulders that had been painted to show up in the UV light shone from the rover’s masthead. ‘That was great driving,’ Esa’s operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany, told the Briton. ‘Everyone on the ground is really proud of you. You succeeded to mark five targets. One was actually marked twice due to a software reboot.’ Major Tim responded: ‘Thanks for everyone’s help and support. It was an awful lot of work on everyone’s behalf to get this up and running, but it was great to see, and I’m really happy everything went so smoothly.’