a robotic surgeon will soon wield the scalpel aboard the ISS

This robot will lay the foundation for surgical treatment in space, which will soon be decisive in connection with the new space race.

The more the second wave of space conquest progresses, the more time humans spend in orbit, and this trend is not about to be reversed. Future space tourists, but also astronauts on future Artemis missions or even colonists going to settle on Mars, must therefore prepare for long-term stays in space.

This situation gradually gives rise to new technical challenges, each more difficult to tackle than the other. We can mention, for example, the food supply or the maintenance of the ship, but also and above all the medical side; care is far from easy in such an inhospitable environment.

But there is no question of ignoring this crucial component in future missions. And to lay the foundations for future space medicine, NASA will soon send a new kind of experimental robot aboard the International Space Station.

A next-generation miniature robotic surgeon

The program is led by Shane Farritor, professor at the University of Nebraska and co-founder of the company Virtual Incision. He is a long-time NASA collaborator who already has considerable experience in the field; he is a great specialist in robotics used in space. In particular, he participated in the design and assembly of Curiosity and Perseverance, the agency’s two stellar Mars rovers. He has also filed more than 170 patents on advanced mechanical systems.

Engineer Shane Farritor, the main architect behind MIRA, poses next to the machine. © Virtual Incision

He has also used this experience for nearly twenty years to develop the Miniaturized In-vivo Robotic Assistant (MIRA). This is a true miniature bionic surgeon based on a concept that already exists on Earth. The idea is to install a robotic interface between the human practitioner and his patient to significantly improve the precision of the operation, while still relying on the medical expertise of the professional.

This advantage, already interesting on Earth, could be even more so in space, where microgravity conditions make operations particularly difficult; it is one thing to sew an artery on Earth, it is quite another to make it reach its contents floating freely above the operating table!

The other major advantage is that these robots make it possible to perform surgical procedures less invasive. Concretely, this means that they actively seek to limit the number and size of incisions. An approach there limits trauma and the risk of postoperative complications in the patient. On Earth, this approach has also been proven to make it possiblespeed up recovery. This would obviously be a significant advantage in space.

From telemedicine to autonomous surgery

The other good point is that MIRA could also function as a telemedicine platform. It would then allow an Earth-based surgeon to operate on a patient without joining them in space. Again, this would be a significant advantage; this will allow for e.g. respond to a life-threatening emergency in the event of a problem with the doctor on board.

The machine has validated its first clinical trial by performing its first remote operation in August 2021. The deployment of the first MIRA on board the ISS is expected on the horizon 2024. Until then, Farritor and his team will refine the device so that it is ready to perform its first operations… i autonomy !

Because this is truly the ultimate goal of MIRA; eventually, its designers hope it will be able to take care of some routine procedures without any human intervention. Again, this would dispense with the services of a human surgeon. But this approach would also have a number of additional advantages. One can especially mention that factsave bandwidth dedicated to communication – a vital resource when locked in a pressure can in the middle of a vacuum.

©NASA

Laying the foundation for space medicine

However, astronauts have nothing to worry about; MIRA will not start ripping them as soon as it arrives on board the ISS. He will start by getting his hands on modeling experiences. This will test its ability to make clean cuts on an elastic material comparable to human skin. He will also have to engage in some dexterity exercises.

If these verifications are necessary, it is not only because it is a marvel of engineering and miniaturization; it is also and above all because this machine will suffer same problem as James Webb (see our article). Although it works perfectly on Earth, its extremely precise and delicate mechanisms can be a little disturbed by the vibrations associated with the launch of the rocket… which would be tantamount to operating on a surgeon with neuromotor disorders. You don’t have to be a seasoned professional to understand that this scenario must be avoided at all costs, or risk making an already problematic situation worse.

With any luck, this scenario will therefore make it possible lay the foundation for complete surgical treatment in microgravity. It will therefore be very interesting to follow the MIRA tests; this will undoubtedly be important work for the future of space colonization, both on board the ISS and future stations and on other planets.

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