Astronauts and Canadian surgeons to demonstrate remote medical care

Longueuil 29 March 2006NASA will send three astronauts and a Cincinnati doctor under the ocean next month to test space medicine concepts and moon-walking techniques. Canadian Space Agency astronaut Dr. Dave Williams will be commander of the 18-day underwater NEEMO 9 mission, April 3 to 20, 2006, off Key Largo, Florida. Dr. Williams and his crew will conduct experiments using the latest remote surgical technologies and techniques, guided by Dr. Mehran Anvari, director of the Centre for Minimal Access Surgery (CMAS) at St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton, Ontario.

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The NEEMO 9 mission will demonstrate and evaluate innovative remote medical care technologies and procedures. Canada can play a leading role in telerobotic surgery because its advanced space robotics technology, telecommunications capability, and visionary medical expertise have come together in a unique way. In the surgical simulations involving telementoring, Dr. Anvari, based in Hamilton, will use two-way high-speed telecommunication links to direct crewmembers in the underwater Aquarius habitat to perform complex medical procedures.

"The extreme conditions of a long underwater mission are similar to those of space", stated Dr. Williams, who participated in the first NEEMO mission and a 16-day space flight on the Space Shuttle Columbia. "The NEEMO 9 mission presents aquanauts and physicians with an unprecedented opportunity to test new medical technologies and state-of-the-art remote medical techniques in real-time and real-life situations. Someday, these capabilities could have important applications in supporting human exploration of the Moon and Mars."

Another simulation involves telerobotics and virtual reality technology, where Dr. Anvari will perform surgical procedures from Hamilton on a mock patient inside Aquarius over 2000 kilometres away. Telerobotic surgery may change the future of medical care by providing advanced surgical procedures to rural communities, extending the reach that city-based teaching hospitals have to more remote areas of the country.

"Since its inception in 1999, the Centre for Minimal Access Surgery has developed techniques to overcome some of the challenges faced by physicians in isolated communities", stated Dr. Anvari. "We will test the latest techniques in an extreme environment on the NEEMO 9 mission. This work will have a major impact on current research and the development of new technologies, including new robotic and surgical platforms which can be used on Earth and beyond."

The experiments will take place 19 metres below the surface of the sea in an underwater habitat called Aquarius. Located 5,6 km off Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, this marine habitat is about the same size as the service module of the International Space Station. A surface buoy provides an outlet for power, life support and communications. A shore-based control centre monitors the habitat and crew. The underwater crew will also include Dr. Tim Broderick of the University of Cincinnati and NASA astronauts Ronald Garan and Nicole Stott. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield will act as back-up crew. Jim Buckley and Ross Hein of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington will provide engineering support.

There have been eight NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) missions to date. NEEMO 9 is a joint project involving the Centre for Minimal Access Surgery at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, the Canadian Space Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA).

The crew members will conduct simulated undersea "moon walks" to test concepts for future lunar exploration. During those simulated moon walks, they will construct an underwater structure with the help of a remotely operated vehicle, similar to what may be done by the next travelers to the moon. This will be the ninth undersea mission conducted by NASA in co-operation with NOAA.

A "mission control" at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, will monitor the underwater expedition. Johnson's Exploration Planning Operations Center will simulate future space challenges, among them the two-second communications delay between Earth and the moon. "This mission will be the longest NEEMO and Aquarius mission", stated NEEMO Project Manager Bill Todd. "Our partnerships with other agencies and countries should provide a treasure chest of useful medical and exploration operations knowledge."

This mission originally was scheduled for October 2005, but it was postponed due to hurricanes. Because of the NEEMO and space shuttle mission schedules, Dr. Williams is replacing NASA astronaut Lee Morin as commander. Through NASA's Digital Learning Network, classrooms will be enabled for videoconferences with Aquarius. Students will conduct experiments of their own before talking with the aquanauts. The pre-event activities are designed to complement the NEEMO 9 mission objectives.

The Centre for Minimal Access Surgery is a McMaster University Centre located at St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton, Ontario. As a state-of-the-art multi-disciplinary technological education and research centre, it is designed to increase the awareness and understanding, as well as support the research and development, of the specialized techniques of minimal access surgery. One of the primary goals of CMAS is to facilitate the training of physicians in remote parts of Canada, in order to increase the competence and scope of minimal access surgery in these areas.

Established in 1989, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) co-ordinates all civil, space-related policies and programmes on behalf of the Government of Canada. CSA directs its resources and activities through four key thrusts: Earth Observation, Space Science and Exploration, Satellite Communications, and Space Awareness and Learning. By leveraging international co-operation, the CSA generates world-class scientific research and industrial development for the benefit of humanity.

More news on the NEEMO missions is available in the VMW October 2005 article NASA uses unique undersea lab to prepare for future exploration.


Leslie Versweyveld

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