How To Do Surgery In Space

Astronauts are required to be in top-notch physical condition before they go to space. But, once in space, health issues and even accidents that would be minor on Earth can become quite serious — astronauts aren’t given extensive medical training, and calling 911 is definitely not an option.

Emergency medical care in space is so hard to come by, there’s even an escape capsule built into the International Space Station, which is the only way to make a quick return to Earth in the event of an emergency, medical or otherwise.

This is especially necessary when a medical problem requires surgery — the lack of gravity on the ISS means blood drops from an open surgical wound would float off in blobs, potentially ending up in the station’s equipment.

To try to solve this problem, researchers at a company called Virtual Incision are working on a tiny robot that could perform emergency surgeries to fix urgent problems without the need for a quick getaway, New Scientist reports. Such an innovation would be essential as we contemplate longer missions and those in which humans stray further from Earth, say to an asteroid or Mars.

“While this work is in an early phase, the minimal invasiveness of this approach could enable its use in remote locations such as on a moon or Mars colony,” researchers wrote in a technical paper on the prototype.

How exactly would it work? “The miniature surgeon slides into the body through an incision in the belly button,” Aviva Rutkin writes in New Scientist. “Once inside the abdominal cavity — which has been filled with inert gas to make room for it to work — the robot can remove an ailing appendix, cut pieces from a diseased colon or perforate a gastric ulcer.”

YouTube screengrabAn early prototype of the robot.

The robot is designed to be light — the latest version is less than a pound — and that’s a crucial feature in anything that’s headed to space.

But in that light package, there’s a lot packed in, Rutkin writes: “It has two arms loaded with tools to grab, cauterize and suture tissue, and its head is a small video camera.”

The robot would be remote-controlled, although controlling it from as far away as Earth would probably be impractical. The further away the robot gets from the controller, the greater the potential communication delays.

Instead, Virtual Incision says, the short-term plan would be to train astronauts to use the robot to perform select surgeries on each other. The longer-term goal is to imbue the tiny robot with medical knowledge and give it the ability to perform operations somewhat autonomously.

Still, the technology has a long way to go. It will soon be tested on human cadavers, but so far, it’s only been used to perform procedures on pigs. Before it can actually be sent to space, the researchers will have to prove the robot’s skills using living humans here on Earth.

In space, where even a routine task like eating can be a technical challenge, the potential complications involved in performing surgery are immense.

“Everything that we take for granted, even something as simple as putting a Band Aid down on a table, is difficult in space,” one of Virtual Incision’s co-founders, Dmitry Oleynikov, told New Scientist. “That difficulty increases logarithmically when you’re trying to do complex procedures such as an operation.”

Later this year, the tiny surgery robot’s basic functions will be tested on a zero-gravity flight.

Here’s a video of an early prototype:

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