NASA is embarking on several exciting new missions to the International Space Station (ISS) that will test the limits of technology in space. These upcoming launches aim to expand capabilities in robot-assisted surgery, materials science, and in-space manufacturing.
Revolutionary Surgical Robot Heading to ISS
A state-of-the-art robotic assistant capable of aiding complex surgical procedures will launch to the ISS later this year. Named STAR – short for Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot – this technology could enable revolutionary surgical capabilities in space and on Earth.
STAR consists of two dexterous arms with tiny implements capable of suturing tissue and manipulating delicate organs. The system employs near-infrared fluorescence imaging to detect blood vessels and can make autonomous decisions in real time. This enables it to adjust to movements and changes in anatomy for maximum precision.
Pioneering New Frontiers in Space Medicine
Traditionally, astronauts have not had access to sophisticated surgical care while in orbit. Minor procedures may be possible, but anything complex would likely require an early mission end and return to Earth. Equipping the ISS with cutting-edge surgical robots like STAR aims to change that.
“This feasibility study is the first step towards showing that autonomous surgical robots could safely operate in the harsh and isolated environment of space,” said Dr. Thomas Marsh, lead investigator of the STAR mission. “It could dramatically improve health outcomes for astronauts on long duration missions. We aim to prove that autonomous surgical capabilities can become reality not just in hospitals around the world, but even in the inhospitable environment of space.”
If successful, this technology could enable complex surgeries and treatment of major trauma in space. This would be invaluable for long haul missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond where quick emergency returns to Earth are impossible. It may also lead to better healthcare access here on Earth by allowing specialist surgeons to remotely operate expert robots in emergency scenarios.
Launching This Summer to Test Dexterous In-Space Surgery
The historic STAR mission is targeting launch aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo resupply mission this summer. Once it arrives at the ISS, NASA astronauts will put the surgical system through a rigorous set of tests.
The initial trial aims to demonstrate STAR can successfully suture together pieces of simulated human tissue. The robot will autonomously track markers using its integrated cameras and carefully manipulate needle drivers under video supervision from surgeons on the ground.
Further tests are planned to prove increasingly complex surgical tasks are possible. This includes patching damaged organs and clearing blocked arteries. Astronauts on board the ISS will monitor the robot and provide feedback in real time.
Novel 3D Printing Capabilities En Route to ISS
In another exciting technology demonstration, NASA aims to push the limits of materials science and in-space manufacturing. A first-of-its-kind metal 3D printer will launch to the ISS in May 2024.
Named the Metal Materials Fabrication Laboratory (Metal Fab), this device can manufacture parts from stainless steels and nickel alloys in the microgravity environment of space. This enables research into exotic materials difficult or impossible to produce on Earth.
Harnessing 3D Printing for Deep Space Exploration
The ability to manufacture spare parts, tools, and specialized components in space will be invaluable for future deep space missions. Carrying everything needed from Earth for long journeys is impractical given launch mass and volume constraints. This technology could provide true self-sufficiency for the first human missions to Mars tentatively planned for the late 2030s.
“Mastering additive manufacturing in space opens up entirely new mission capabilities,” explained Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s 3D Printing project manager. “If an important device breaks during a Mars mission, we can’t easily turn back or get resupplied. Making repairs with material available rather than spare parts from Earth will be essential. Metal Fab lets us test the complex processes for high quality metal printing off-planet so we can advance this crucial capability for the challenging environment of space.”
Metal 3D printing works differently in microgravity compared to Earth. Researchers will use the ISS to better understand these differences and refine methods for creating high strength, complex metal parts in space.
Launching a Unique Space-Based Manufacturing Platform
FabLab builds on lessons learned from prior plastic 3D printers on the ISS. It provides an order of magnitude increase in build volume size compared previous devices. This enables larger structural components up to 8 inches x 7 inches x 21 inches to be manufactured.
Its specialized non-magnetic enclosure allows printing a wide range of metals impossible within the Earth’s magnetic field. Electrically charged metal atoms used in printing can induce unwanted arc discharges in normal conditions. Researchers will take advantage of weightlessness and the ISS’s isolation from terrestrial magnetism for these first ever space-based fabrication experiments with stainless steel, nickel superalloys, and more.
|8in x 7in x 21in
|Stainless Steel Alloys
|Powder Bed Fusion – Selective Laser Melting
Astronauts will periodically remove finished test prints for analysis back on Earth. Scientists will study their microstructures for defects and benchmark mechanical performance against equivalents made terrestrially. A range of experiments are planned to fine tune production methods in the coming years.
More Advanced Investigations to ISS Than Ever Before
The STAR surgical robot and Metal Fab 3D printer join a host of other cutting-edge experiments targeting launch to the ISS this year. This includes advanced optics experiments, synthetic human tissue models, and even bio-printed mushrooms.
Record Number of Launch Opportunities in 2024
NASA has contracted a staggering 64 resupply launches from commercial partners SpaceX and Northrop Grumman in 2024 – far eclipsing any prior year. This enables an unprecedented amount of equipment for conducting research aboard ISS across hundreds of ongoing investigations.
“2022 and 2023 were record setting years for NASA in terms of private launch contracts, but 2024 is on a whole other level,” said ISS director Phil McAlister. “The commercialization of low Earth orbit has expanded our opportunities tremendously. We are able to conduct more meaningful research to benefit life on Earth while simultaneously advancing our capabilities for future deep space exploration missions. It’s a very exciting time!”
With this boost in payload capacity, existing investigations can be augmented with additional hardware and samples. Entirely new experiments are also launching that would have been infeasible just a couple years prior.
Mushrooms and Human Tissue Among Highlights Targeting 2024 Launch
The Synthetic Human Organ Demonstration Unit aims grow realistic lung, kidney, and intestinal tissue models using advanced 3D cell culturing methods. This will provide platforms for studying infection mechanisms and testing potential treatments while avoiding animal trials.
BioAstroid applies techniques from the emerging field of cellular agriculture to achieve the first off-Earth cultivation of fungi. The ability to grow mushrooms and other crops could greatly improve food variety on long duration space missions.
The Solar Cell Demonstration Unit provides next-generation ultrathin and flexible photovoltaic materials. Foldable solar panels with high efficiency hold promise for powering surface operations on the Moon and Mars.
With commercial launch rates accelerating faster than ever in hot on the heels of NASA’s Artemis program, the ISS finds itself experiencing a renaissance as humanity’s premier microgravity research platform. The investigations launching this year promise to pioneer space technologies and manufacturing techniques that will drive deep space exploration into the 2030s and beyond while benefiting people on Earth.
Conclusion: Pivotal Year Ahead as NASA Tests Space Frontiers
NASA has its sights set firmly on the moon and Mars, with hopes of sending humans back beyond low Earth orbit this decade. But first, research aboard the International Space Station will enable trailblazing innovations to expand what’s possible in space.
Autonomous surgical robots, off-Earth metal 3D printing, and bio-manufacturing represent just a glimpse of what’s to launch this year alone. These technologies push the extremes of what’s possible without Earth’s resources and environment readily available. Successful demonstrations aboard ISS blaze a trail for establishing permanent bases on other worlds – where self-sufficiency and adaptation to extreme environments is paramount.
With the Artemis Generation preparing to voyage deeper into space than ever before, NASA is ensuring next generation systems are ready to send them prepared. 2024 proves a pivotal year as these technologies launch to trial the space frontiers of the future: pioneering space medicine through robot surgeons on ISS today – working towards first human boots on Mars tomorrow.
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