A robot surgeon will be tested on board the international space station (ISS) – and could one day operate independently of humans in space.
In 2024, the miniature surgical robot will fly to the space station, where it will demonstrate its ability to cut simulated tissue.
Scientists say it could one day repair an astronaut’s ruptured appendix during a mission to Marchor removing shrapnel from an explosive-wounded soldier thousands of miles away.
The ISS (pictured) floats in low Earth orbit at an altitude of 254 miles. It flies around the world every 90 minutes, traveling at 5 miles per second
WHAT IS THE MIRA ROBOT?
MIRA, (miniaturized robotic assistant in vivo), is a robotic system developed by experts from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
MIRA can be inserted through a small incision, allowing doctors to perform abdominal surgery in a minimally invasive way.
In previous tests, surgeons have successfully used the device to perform colon resections.
In April, NASA announced that it had awarded the University of Nebraska-Lincoln $100,000 to prepare the surgical robot for its 2024 mission to the ISS.
MIRA is the brainchild of Shane Farritor, a professor at the College of Engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL).
In April, NASA announced that it had awarded the university $100,000 to prepare the surgical robot for its 2024 test mission.
“NASA has long supported this research and, as a culmination of this effort, our robot will have a chance to fly on the International Space Station,” Prof Farritor said.
MIRA weighs only two pounds and is essentially a long robotic cylinder with two moving cogs at the bottom.
Each of these pins has two small tools on the end – one for clamping objects and the other for cutting objects.
Eventually they will be used to cut and hold real human organs and tissues, but for safety reasons years of R&D and testing must first be done.
Currently, the tools are inserted through a single incision in the patient’s abdomen, controlled by a nearby human operator at a surgeon’s console, but in the future the robot could be made to operate autonomously.
“As people go further and further into space, they may one day need to undergo surgery,” Prof Farritor said. “We are working towards that goal.”
During its journey aboard the space station, MIRA will operate on its own, without the guiding hand of a doctor or astronaut, although it is nowhere near human tissue.
Inside an experiment locker the size of a microwave oven, he’ll cut taut rubber bands and push metal rings along a wire, gestures that simulate those of surgery.
MIRA weighs only two pounds and is essentially a long robotic cylinder with two moving cogs at the bottom. Each of these pins has two small tools on the end – one for clamping objects and the other for cutting objects. Eventually they will be used to cut and hold real human organs and tissue, but for safety reasons years of testing must first be done.
Although Professor Farritor predicts that MIRA will operate autonomously in 50 to 100 years, the goal of Mission 2024 is not autonomy, but to refine the robot’s operation in weightlessness.
The device is programmed to operate autonomously to conserve the space station’s communications bandwidth and minimize the time the astronauts spend with the experiment.
“The astronaut flips a switch, the process starts and the robot does its job on its own,” Professor Farritor said. “Two hours later, the astronaut turns it off and it’s done.”
Over the next year, he and UNL engineering graduate student Rachael Wagner will work together on the final steps before launch.
Nebraska engineering professor Shane Farritor (pictured) invented ‘MIRA’, described as a miniaturized robot for remote surgery
They’ll write software, configure MIRA to fit inside a space station experiment locker, and exhaustively test the device to ensure it’s rugged enough to survive the launch and that its systems will perform as intended in space.
MIRA’s surgical capability has already been proven in the field – in a previous experience with MIRA, retired NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson took control of the robot while at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
I asked MIRA to perform surgical duties in an operating room 900 miles away at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
Professor Farritor and his colleagues have been developing MIRA for nearly 20 years. In 2006, I co-founded Virtual Incision, a Nebraska Innovation Campus-based startup, to bring it to life.
To date, the company has attracted over $100 million in venture capital investments since its inception.
EXPLAINED: THE $100 BILLION INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION IS 250 MILES ABOVE EARTH
The International Space Station (ISS) is a $100bn (£80bn) science and engineering laboratory that orbits 400km above Earth.
It has been permanently occupied by rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts since November 2000.
The crews came mainly from the United States and Russia, but the Japanese space agency JAXA and the European space agency ESA also sent astronauts.
The International Space Station has been continuously manned for over 20 years and has been expanded with several new modules added and system upgrades
Research conducted aboard the ISS often requires one or more of the unusual conditions found in low Earth orbit, such as low gravity or oxygen.
ISS studies have focused on human research, space medicine, life sciences, physical sciences, astronomy and meteorology.
The US space agency NASA spends around $3bn (£2.4bn) a year on the space station programme, with the rest of the funding coming from international partners including Europe, Russia and Japan.
So far, 244 people from 19 countries have visited the station, including eight individuals who have spent up to $50 million on their visit.
There is an ongoing debate about the station’s future beyond 2025, when it is believed that part of the original structure will reach “end of life”.
Russia, a major partner of the station, plans to launch its own orbital platform around this date, with Axiom Space, a private company, planning to send its own modules to the station in parallel for purely commercial use.
NASA, ESA, JAXA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) are working together to build a space station in orbit around the Moon, and Russia and China are working on a similar project, which would also include a base in surface.