Imagine that in our insatiable interest in space, we humans have managed to overcome the challenges that prevented us from reaching beyond the Moon and have embarked on a long and challenging journey to mars. Depending on the launch speed, it would take us between 150 and 300 days to reach the red planet, but what if during that time any of the crew were diagnosed with, say, appendicitis? Would a midway intervention be possible?
NASA believes that MIRA could be the solution. It’s about a small surgical robot which is being developed by researchers at the University of Nebraska and is expected to be capable of operating autonomously in space. This last feature of the robot is essential for deep space travel, where as the spacecraft moves away, the radio waves that would allow it to be controlled remotely would take longer and longer to reach their destination.
LOOK, first stop: ISS
But before guaranteeing the health of the astronauts who will travel to Mars, the robot must pass a series of very strict tests, on Earth and in space. Fortunately we have two operational space stations in orbit right now. The Tiangong, from the CNSA, and the ISS, from NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA, and the CSA. As it is a project promoted by the US agency, MIRA is expected to travel to the ISS in 2024 to begin testing.
Once on board the ISS, scientists will have the opportunity to evaluate for the first time the operation of the surgeon robot in space and prepare it for future operations remotely and without assistance. In the past, for example, former NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson managed to perform “surgery-like tasks” by controlling MIRA from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, 900 kilometers from the University of Nebraska in Omaha.
The main advantages that this robot will have, according to its creators, is that it will be able to make small incisions to insert its instruments and perform less invasive and cumbersome surgical procedures. Another advantage is that it will have two modes of operation: totally autonomous, for less complex situations, and via remote control, for interventions that require a specialist directing the entire process.
While remote-controlled surgery won’t be an option for a ship traveling to Mars (remember the communications lag), it could be very useful if you’re setting up a colony. A specialist could conduct surgery on the red planet miles and miles away from a base with an operating room. This scenario could also be applied on Earth, preventing the doctor from having to move from one place to another to do his job.
However, researchers still have a lot of work to do. NASA and the United States Army have made several contributions of money to promote the development of the surgeon robot. In addition, Virtual Incision, the company in charge of the commercial development of the project, has been receiving money from external investors.
What follows is to adapt the robot so that it is robust enough to withstand the harsh conditions of liftoff and to function in one of the ISS laboratory lockers that are about the size of a microwave. Of course, it will not yet operate completely autonomously. It is expected that he will be able to do surgery without any assistance in 50 years or more.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism