NASA image of a surgeon using NASA-developed equipment

Is surgery actually possible in zero-G?

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Apr 20, 2018

It’s a scary thought no one on Earth probably ever had: What if you were on a spaceship flying tens of thousands of miles from this planet and needed emergency surgery?

Dr. George Pantalos, professor of surgery and bioengineering at the University of Louisville, would have probably known what to do better than the crew of the S.S. Nostromo during that whole facehugger situation in Alien. Seeker found out he is developing surgical techniques that sound like they emerged from a sci-fi movie, but in the not-so-distant future, they could actually save lives in that deep chasm of space where no one can hear you scream.

“The astro surgery project anticipates one of many needs that will be needed for healthcare on expeditionary space flights,” said Pantalos. “There will be space flights, for example to Mars, to asteroids, possibly even other locations in the solar system or for establishing long-term base operations on the moon.”

Think about it. Astronauts on the moon are over three days away from Earth; astronauts on Mars will be separated from the home planet by about eight months. Because most of the crew will have studied rocket science and not medicine in a past life, there needs to be equipment onboard that will enable them to operate autonomously.

Microgravity changes everything when it comes to giving medical care in space. Things — including biohazardous things — could end up floating where you least want them to. This is why Pantalos has developed a clear plastic dome that is placed over the surgery site and sticks to the skin with an adhesive. He also transformed what was once an incubator into what he calls the “glove box,” which can be used to provide special treatment and also contains any objects that could easily get away.

With NASA-developed robotic assistants helping doctors achieve precision in operating rooms on Earth, Pantalos anticipates these same robots being used in space.

“We need to redesign some of the surgical tools both to make them easy for the robot to identify visually as well as to pick up with its fingers and hand it to the surgeon when the surgeon needs it or to manipulate the instrument themselves,” the doctor explained. He and his team have actually created a multi-functional robotic instrument that is capable of suction, irrigation, illumination, and even cauterizing wounds so they don’t get infected.

There is no surgery that doesn’t involve bodily fluids, but Pantalos has figured out a solution for even that. Waste recovery is the process by which those fluids would be recovered and filtered into sterile saline or even drinkable water. If that sounds like the stuff of nightmares, it probably won’t to someone on their way to Mars with water rapidly running out on board the spaceship.

There's also the fact that many of these technologies could be beneficial to Earthlings who have no intent of ever leaving the atmosphere. Nobody wants surgery, but if you ever need it, trust a space doctor.

(via Seeker)