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James Webb's Eye in the Sky Aids Human Eyes with LASIK Tech

NASA technicians inspect the primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope.
NASA technicians inspect the primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope.
(Image: © NASA/Chris Gunn)

An upgrade to the optic technology on NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has been used to improve the eyesight of humans on Earth. 

The James Webb Space Telescope is expected to launch in 2021. The instrument will use a large primary mirror to gather infrared light and deliver unprecedented views of the universe, NASA has said. 

However, developing the telescope's mirrors required multiple cycles of measuring, grinding, polishing and testing. To aid in this, NASA team members developed a technique called the Infrared Scanning Shack Hartmann System, which helps measure the mirrors after they've undergone grinding. Eye doctors now use this technology to improve human eyesight, according to a statement from NASA. 

Related: Building the James Webb Space Telescope: Hubble's Successor (Gallery)

"Seeing the many technology spinoffs and advancements that help society and also help create and sustain jobs across our country has been one of the really rewarding parts of working on the optics for Webb," Lee Feinberg, optical telescope element manager for Webb at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in the statement

Using the Infrared Scanning Shack Hartmann System, NASA team members were able to capture an image of the entire mirror surface for analysis. This, in turn, facilitates the analysis of the 18 individual mirror segments that make up the telescope's massive, 21.3-foot (6.5 meters) primary mirror. This technology has since been applied to eye surgery, allowing doctors to create a high-definition map of a patient's eye to aid in LASIK procedures. 

During such a procedure, a laser reshapes a patient's cornea, the very surface of the eye. That reshaping allows LASIK to treat nearsightedness, farsightedness or astigmatism. The new method of preparing for LASIK, called iDesign, improves upon previous eye-mapping technology, providing five times more data points in mapping the aberrations and irregularities of a patient's eye, according to the statement. 

"iDesign gives me, as a surgeon, more-accurate measurements for more-accurate treatment of every patient that I operate on to achieve better quality of vision after laser vision correction," Dr. Eric Donnenfeld, an ophthalmologist who has specialized in laser surgery for 30 years, said in the statement

Donnenfeld has used iDesign for 10,000 LASIK procedures in the last five years at his Garden City, New York, practice. Another ophthalmologist, Dr. Blake Williamson of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said iDesign has been transformative for patients.

"Bringing proven space technology to medical sciences is a no-brainer if you find areas of synergy where it can better serve patients. A lot of the great advancements and innovations in medical sciences come from the joining of two disparate fields — like NASA and ophthalmology," Williamson said in the statement. "Most surgeries are usually restorative, returning a sick person to health, but refractive surgery, LASIK surgery, is beyond restorative — it's transformative. You're making someone better than they ever have been."

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