One of the questions that NASA has to solve before launching the first crewed trip to Mars is how to take care of astronauts during a medical emergency. Something like, say, a burst appendix is fairly run-of-the-mill for doctors to resolve on Earth. But in space, things could get dire very quickly if something isn’t done about it soon. There aren’t zero-gravity hospitals where you have access to medical supplies and a community of trained experts who know what they’re doing.

Luckily, engineers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have developed a solution that could allow doctors on Earth to help off-planet patients. Using a $100,000 award from NASA, the team plans to build a remote surgical robot and launch it to the International Space Station in 2024 for live testing, the school announced on Monday. The miniaturized in vivo robotic assistant, or MIRA, is designed to be small enough to be inserted in a small incision. This allows surgery to be conducted in a minimally invasive way.

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“NASA has been a long-term supporter of this research and, as a culmination of that effort, our robot will have a chance to fly on the International Space Station,” Shane Farritor, the inventor of MIRA and engineer at UNL, said in a press release.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering grad student Rachael Wagner adjusts the MIRA surgical robot.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

During the in-orbit experiment, MIRA will be working autonomously in a microwave-sized experiment locker and conduct simulated surgery by performing maneuvers like cutting rubber bands and pushing metal rings on a wire. Researchers will be closely observing how the system operates in a microgravity environment.

“The astronaut flips a switch, the process starts and the robot does its work by itself,” Farritor explained. “Two hours later, the astronaut switches it off and it’s done.” The set-it-and-forget-it process allows the ISS crew to focus their attention on other more pertinent matters while the system works on its own.

Due to its remote nature, researchers believe that MIRA has a wide range of applications. Along with providing medical services to astronauts, it could also be used to help injured soldiers on the front lines where doctors might not be readily available to perform surgery. The U.S. Army has even funded Farritor’s research due to its potential.

If we expect to ever become a multi-planetary species, then devices like MIRA are going to undoubtedly play a large role in getting us there. And who knows? These robots might get sophisticated enough for even more complicated space surgeries in the future.

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