A tiny robot known as MIRA will be blasting off to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2024 to perform simulated surgical procedures in microgravity.
MIRA, or "Miniaturized in vivo Robotic Assistant," will fly to the International Space Station thanks to a $100,000 award to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln through the U.S. Department of Energy's Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).
The technology involved could in the future provide a solution to medical emergencies requiring surgical intervention while astronauts are far from home, such as on a mission to Mars.
First though, the 2024 test mission will see MIRA operate within an experimental locker the size of a microwave aboard ISS in low-Earth orbit.
The aim will be to fine-tune the robot's operation in microgravity through autonomous tests including cutting stretched rubber bands and pushing metal rings along a wire, mimicking movements used in surgery.
"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, professor of engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said in a statement.
Over the next year, Farritor and his team will write custom software for MIRA, configure the robot to fit inside a standardized space station experiment container and perform tests to ensure MIRA will operate as intended in space and can survive a launch.
In previous tests, surgeons have successfully used the device to perform colon resections. It has also been used remotely, with a former NASA astronaut using MIRA to perform surgery-like tasks while 900 miles (1,448 kilometers) away from the operating room.
MIRA was developed by Virtual Incision, a startup co-founded by Farritor and which has attracted more than $100 million in venture capital investment since its founding in 2006.
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Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for Space.com in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.