Handheld laser device can quickly diagnose astronaut health in space

astronaut testing a medical device
International Space Station astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti tests the rHEALTH medical sampling device. (Image credit: NASA)

Lasers in space will speed up transmission of medical sample results faster than ever, scientists say.

International Space Station astronauts are trying to find efficiencies in medical diagnoses to make better operational decisions in remote environments, especially as NASA reaches for the moon under the Artemis program and eventually, send astronauts to Mars.

The lasers are just one part of the package that will, researchers say, benefit astronaut health even while spaceflyers are in low Earth orbit. The device, somewhat akin to a "Star Trek" tricorder, is called Reusable Handheld Electrolyte and Laboratory Technology for Humans (rHEALTH) ONE biomedical analyzer.

"Astronauts could use rHEALTH to perform a full self-diagnosis without technical training,” said Eugene Chan, inventor of the unit, in a NASA statement posted Sept. 7. "They only need a drop of blood, saliva, or urine to put into the reader and within minutes they have the results of a range of crucial health indicators."

Related: Tricorders in space: Not just a 'Star Trek' dream any more

The technology is early-stage and its efficacy is not yet known. That said, European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti tested the device over two days during Expedition 67, which is ongoing on the ISS, and the research team will examine the results to see where to go next.

The devices are designed to record of a variety of common medical conditions that may affect astronauts while they're on a mission, such as blood clots (which have happened on the ISS before), radiation exposure, and kidney stones. Moreover, the device is highly portable, which makes a huge difference when you're trying to cut down on the amount of mass being launched to a far-off planet.

Collecting the samples requires two steps: a sensor that is stuck to the chest, which can send real-time information to doctors on Earth. Meanwhile, a sample only requires a drop of blood or saliva, which is placed onto a nanostrip for the device to analyze.

"Once inside the rHEALTH reader, microfluidic technology performs dilution, mixing, and complete sample prep," NASA stated. "The sample is then exposed to two lasers that read and analyze it, collecting over 100 million raw data points for particles the size of cells."

Related: Here's what emergency medicine will look like for astronauts in space

Astronauts working on the moon will need to diagnose their health far from doctors on Earth. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA says the two-step technology is so far unique in orbit, and may allow astronauts and the doctors that care for them to get medical information faster. That would also allow for swifter discussions concerning medical treatment.

Since the experiment uses liquid in microgravity, to stop artificial separation or other issues, external connections were modified to keep water in and air bubbles out.

"The rHEALTH unit pushes water with air pressure to flow a sample through the device," NASA stated. "Engineers had to design a container that could be squeezed easily and made an assembly with soft medical balloons that looks just like a pair of lungs."

The Artemis missions aim to put astronauts on the moon in 2025 or 2026, providing that earlier flights go to plan. The first mission, an uncrewed effort called Artemis 1, is scheduled to launch Sept. 23 on a round-the-moon mission to test out the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft ahead of flying astronauts.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace