A miniature robot designed to help conduct remote surgeries could be tested on board the International Space Station before the end of 2024.
Eventually, the surgical robot could be used to repair “an astronaut’s ruptured appendix on a mission to Mars”, say the researchers behind it.
NASA has awarded the University of Nebraska-Lincoln $100,000 to prepare the robot for its test mission – however, the plan for its first trip into space does not involve operating on human flesh.
Instead, the robot, known as MIRA – short for “miniaturized in vivo robotic assistant” – will be exhaustively tested while inside an experiment locker on the space station.
The experiment locker is about the size of a microwave oven, and inside it MIRA will be working autonomously – without either a doctor or an astronaut guiding it.
MIRA will have to gently cut into tautly stretched rubber bands and also push metal rings along a wire, mimicking gestures that are used in surgery.
The test will be the most autonomous operation that the robot has completed so far.
The inventors “anticipate MIRA will function on its own in 50 to 100 years, this mission’s goal is not autonomy, but to fine-tune the robot’s operation in zero gravity”, said the university.
By programming MIRA to work autonomously, it will conserve the space station’s bandwidth and minimise the amount of time astronauts have to spend on the experiment.
“The astronaut flips a switch, the process starts, and the robot does its work by itself. Two hours later, the astronaut switches it off, and it’s done,” said inventor Shane Farritor, a University of Nebraska engineering professor.
The miniaturised robot is being developed by Professor Farritor’s company Virtual Incision.
Professor Farritor and graduate student Rachel Wagner will configure MIRA so that it fits inside the locker on the ISS.
Ms Wagner took a position with Virtual Incision after completing her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2018.
The pair are set to spend the next year writing software and testing MIRA to make sure it will survive being launched into space when its turn to travel finally arrives.
MIRA has two key advantages, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“First, it can be inserted through a small incision, enabling doctors to perform abdominal surgery in a minimally invasive manner. In previous tests, surgeons have successfully used the device to perform colon resections.
“Secondly, the technology could enable surgeons to work remotely. In a previous experiment, retired NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson took the robot’s controls while at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston.”