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An illustration about communication and space. // Illustration by Jonathan Dyck
Illustration by Jonathan Dyck

Operation Space

It’s a dangerous job being an astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS). If someone onboard is injured or falls ill, and requires emergency surgery, they’re a long way from help.

University of Manitoba engineering professor Ekram Hossain is collaborating with colleagues at the University of Calgary to make space travel a bit safer. The Robot-Assisted Space Telemetry (RAST) program tests the feasibility of performing surgery aboard the ISS using a robot controlled from a workstation on Earth. The research could one day be used by Earth-based medical teams to perform remote operations on the moon and Mars.

“It’s an important project, because when astronauts fall sick—anything can happen,” says Hossain, who has been part of the U of M’s department of electrical and computer engineering since 2001. Medical emergencies that could require spaceflight surgery range from chemical contamination to minor injuries to dental problems.

RAST, based out of the University of Calgary, is a multidisciplinary project relying on the expertise of engineers, surgeons and astronomers. The venture is associated with the neuroArm neurosurgical robot and is the first time the feasibility of telesurgery in space has been studied. U of M grad Yaser Maddahi [PhD/14], who’s now in Calgary, sparked the collaboration between the two universities.

Hossain’s principal task is to develop a space emulator that simulates the network between the ground station and the ISS. This emulator provides an opportunity to study the project’s feasibility without spending a lot of money testing the system in space.

Because of the distance, and the fact that the ISS and the satellites are moving, it causes a network delay between 500 and 800 milli-seconds, Hossain says. While it doesn’t sound like much lag time, things could go seriously wrong during one of the long-distance operations if the robot required real-time reactions.

Hossain’s primary challenge is not having access to all of the required communication information regarding the ISS because some of the data is classified. It affects the simulation’s precision. “We have to use abstract thinking sometimes,” he says.

Hossain figures we’re about five to 10 years away from seeing a remote surgery performed on the ISS. There’s a growing interest in developing a communications infrastructure that goes beyond traditional satellites, he notes.

The new space networks could include drones, new types of satellites, and airships on high-altitude platform stations.

“I think this is quite futuristic. The work that we do could be extended to anything—from here to Mars.”

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