This falls under the “They’ve Thought of Everything” category: When you need surgery but the nearest operating room with gravity is back on Earth, you can use this new medical device to conduct zero-gravity surgery while you continue your space mission.
Seriously. NASA is planning trips to Mars, journeys that will take months. So what do you do if an astronaut has an emergency or an illness that requires surgery? Apparently, you use an “aqueous immersion surgical system,” designed by George Pantalos, a professor of surgery and bioengineering at the University of Louisville, and others from Carnegie Mellon University, reports USA TODAY.
The surgical system is an airtight and watertight enclosure with surgical ports that in space would be filled with saline to surround the wound. This contraption would stop bleeding and contain fluids that would float around in zero gravity and potentially harm the patient and other astronauts.
Although the space shuttle program is retired, President Obama announced in 2010 a goal to have a manned flight to reach an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by the mid-2030s. A one-way trip to Mars would take nine or 10 months, but a round-trip mission would likely take several years. USA TODAY explains how a mission of this kind challenges researchers:
Pantalos is one of many researchers working on the challenges of extended space travel. Those include health care concerns, such as the rapid loss of bone density, wounds that heal slowly in space and the possibility of having to do medical procedures using remote-controlled robots.
“NASA is looking at all the stuff they need to develop over the next 10 to 15 years to get ready for long-duration missions,” says Jennifer Hayden, a researcher from Carnegie Mellon. The device her team is working on receives no NASA funding, but the agency does allow them to use zero-gravity aircraft, which flies on parabolic arcs to simulate 20 to 30 seconds of weightlessness, to test the device. The teams hopes that the results of those tests will lead to a NASA grant so they can study the device more.
“In the weightless atmosphere of deep space, the absence of gravity will make it nearly impossible to control the escape of blood and bodily fluids during surgery,” Pantalos says. “This lack of control would both compromise the health of the patient as well as contaminate the spacecraft cabin.”
To keep the body fluids from floating around, the team developed the idea of the device having a transparent dome shape, about the size of a grapefruit. But, depending on what body area would need a surgical procedure, that shape can take on other forms.
The device works better when water or saline is pumped through it to safely remove blood and other body fluids, or to control bleeding. The team tried to test the device without using water or saline but then blood covered the walls of the device, blocking anyone from being able to look in. With the liquid, on the other hand, the team could create suction and control bleeding. “We have more tests and development, but I think using an aqueous system may be a reasonable approach,” Pantalos says.