Craig Chandler/University Communication
A surgery-performing robot developed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will blast into space to perform tests on the International Space Station in 2024 as NASA continues to ramp up its efforts in preparation for deep space travel.
Called MIRA, short for “miniaturized in-vivo robotic assistant,” the robot was invented by Nebraska Engineering Professor Shane Farritor. It is a joint project with Virtual Incision, a startup he co-founded in the Nebraska Innovation Campus.
Farritor and his colleagues worked on MIRA for almost 20 years when NASA awarded the university $100,000 funding to get the robot ready for a 2024 test mission aboard the ISS. While onboard, it will be stored in a microwave-sized experiment locker, where it will cut stretched rubber bands and push rings in gestures that simulate surgery.
Farritor and engineering graduate student Rachael Wagner, who also works on the project, will have to make sure MIRA performs tasks as anticipated while in zero gravity and, equally importantly, is robust enough to withstand the launch. To save the space station’s communications bandwidth and the time astronauts spend with the experiment, MIRA will work autonomously while onboard.
However, autonomy is not a goal in itself. “Working with NASA aboard the space station will test how MIRA can make surgery accessible in even the most faraway places,” John Murphy, CEO of Virtual Incision, said in a company announcement.
The minimally invasive medical robot can also be operated remotely. Previous tests included a retired NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson controlling the robot in Nebraska from hundreds of miles away while at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“NASA has ambitious plans for long-duration space travel, and it’s important to test the capabilities of technology that may be beneficial during missions measured in months and years,” Farritor said in the announcement.
NASA’s other plans to enable deep space exploration include setting up a nuclear power plant on the Moon, which it hopes will act as a springboard for future Mars missions.