A robotic surgeon will be tested aboard the International Space Station (ISS) — and could one day perform surgeries on people in space on its own.
After years of support and sponsorship from NASA, scientists in Nebraska have developed a robot called MIRA, short for “miniaturized in vivo robotic assistant.”
In 2024, the miniature surgical robot will fire toward the space station, where it will demonstrate its ability to cut simulated tissue.
Scientists claim it could one day repair an astronaut’s ruptured appendix during a mission to Mars, or remove shrapnel from a soldier wounded by an explosive thousands of miles away.
The ISS (pictured) is floating in low Earth orbit at an altitude of 254 miles. It flies around the world every 90 minutes, at a speed of 5 miles per second
WHAT IS THE MIRA ROBOT?
MIRA, (miniaturized in vivo robotic assistant), is a robotic system developed by experts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
MIRA can be inserted through a small incision, allowing doctors to perform abdominal surgery in a minimally invasive manner.
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 creation of Shane Farritor, a professor in 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 test mission in 2024.
“NASA has long supported this research, and as the culmination of that effort, our robot will have the opportunity to fly on the International Space Station,” said Professor Farritor.
MIRA weighs only two pounds and is essentially a long robotic cylinder with two movable teeth on the bottom.
Each of these prongs 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 be completed first.
Currently, the instruments are inserted through a single incision in the patient’s abdomen, controlled by a nearby human operator on a surgeon’s console, but in the future, the robot could operate autonomously.
“As people go further and deeper into space, they may one day have to undergo surgery,” said Professor Farritor. ‘We are working towards that goal.’
During its journey aboard the space station, MIRA will operate autonomously, without the guiding hand of a doctor or an astronaut, although it will not come close to human tissue.
In a microwave-sized experiment box, it cuts tightly stretched rubber bands and pushes metal rings along a wire, gestures that simulate it during surgery.
MIRA weighs only two pounds and is essentially a long robotic cylinder with two movable teeth on the bottom. Each of these prongs 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 due to safety reasons, years of testing must be completed first
While Professor Farritor expects MIRA to function on its own in 50 to 100 years, the goal of the 2024 mission is not to be autonomous, but to refine the robot’s operation without gravity.
The device will be programmed to operate autonomously to save the space station’s communications bandwidth and minimize the amount of time astronauts spend on the experiment.
“The astronaut flips a switch, the process begins and the robot does its job itself,” said Professor Farritor. “Two hours later the astronaut turns it off and it’s done.”
Over the next year, he and Rachael Wagner, a UNL graduate of engineering, will work together on the final stages leading up to launch.
Nebraska Engineering Professor Shane Farritor (pictured) invented ‘MIRA’, described as a miniaturized robot for remote surgery
They will write software, configure MIRA to fit into a space station experiment box, and extensively test the device to ensure it is robust enough to survive launch and that the systems will perform as expected in space.
MIRA’s surgical capability has already been proven on the ground — in a previous experiment with MIRA, retired NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson took over control of the robot at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
He instructed MIRA to perform surgery-like duties in an operating room 900 miles away from the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
Professor Farritor and colleagues have been developing MIRA for nearly 20 years. In 2006, he co-founded Virtual Incision, a startup based at Nebraska Innovation Campus, to bring it to life.
The company has raised more than $100 million in venture capital investments to date since its inception.
EXPLAINED: THE $100 BILLION INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION IS 250 MILES ABOVE THE EARTH
The International Space Station (ISS) is a $100 billion (£80 billion) science and engineering laboratory orbiting 400 kilometers above the Earth.
It has been permanently manned by rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts since November 2000.
Crews are mainly from the US and Russia, but the Japanese space agency JAXA and the European space agency ESA have also sent astronauts.
The International Space Station has been continuously occupied for over 20 years and has been expanded with multiple new modules added and upgrades to systems
Research aboard the ISS often requires one or more of the unusual conditions present in low Earth orbit, such as low gravity or oxygen.
ISS studies have explored human research, space medicine, life sciences, natural sciences, astronomy and meteorology.
The US space agency NASA spends about $3 billion (£2.4 billion) a year on the space station program, with the remaining funding coming from international partners, including Europe, Russia and Japan.
So far, 244 individuals from 19 countries have visited the station, including eight citizens who spent up to $50 million for their visit.
There is an ongoing debate about the station’s future after 2025, when it is believed that some of the original structure will reach the end of its life.
Russia, a major partner in the station, plans to launch its own orbital platform around that time, while Axiom Space, a private company, plans to send its own modules to the station for purely commercial use.
NASA, ESA, JAXA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) are collaborating 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 surface base.