NASA Team Dives Deep to Test Robotic Surgeon

A team of six aquanauts and two handy robotic surgeons will plunge into the Atlantic Ocean Monday to test new medical and exploration tools for long duration spaceflight.

Led by U.S. spaceflyer Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, a crew astronauts, doctors and divers will descend to an undersea laboratory off the Florida coast at 10:00 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) to kick off NASA's Extreme Environment Missions Operations (NEEMO) 12 expedition.

Piper, NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez and four crewmates plan to spend the next 12 days staging mock moonwalks and telerobotic surgery experiments at Aquarius, an ocean floor laboratory 67 feet (20 meters) underwater near Key Largo, Fla.

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"Telemedicine and robotic surgery could be the key to maintaining the health of future spacefarers and responding to medical emergencies in space," said NEEMO 12 crewmember Tim Broderick, a gastrointestinal surgeon from the University of Cincinnati, of the mission.

During NEEMO 12 crew, Broderick will evaluate the performance of the 50-pound (22-kilogram) Raven robot, a portable two-armed automaton built by researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, and the M7 surgical robot constructed by Menlo Park, Calif.'s SRI International for possible spaceflight applications.

Both robots are designed to be operated remotely by surgeons on land, with a team of three doctors to command Raven via the Internet from consoles at the University of Washington's BioRobotics Laboratory in Seattle. The robots will be guided through a series of tasks on a simulated patient.

Working alongside Broderick will be Josef Schmid, NASA's first flight surgeon ever to visit the Aquarius laboratory.

"Schmid's unique experience in space medicine will benefit the mission itself as well as the future development of crew care techniques for long-duration human spaceflight missions," said Bill Todd, NASA's NEEMO project manager at the agency's Johnson Space Center astronaut training facility in Houston, Texas.

Divers James Talacek and Dominic Landucci, of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington which oversees Aquarius for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, round out the NEEMO 12 crew.

Raven researchers said their surgical robot relies on smaller computers and power sources that can be disassembled and packed into dive bags for the descent down to Aquarius.

But perhaps most important, Raven engineers provided the NEEMO 12 crew with an instructional manual to assemble the robot and troubleshoot any unforeseen problems, they added.

"When you build a technology as a lab prototype, it takes someone with a Ph.D. six weeks to put it together," said Blake Hannaford, co-director of the University of Washington's BioRobotics Laboratory. "If you build something for the field, it's got to be repairable, modular and robust."

Stefanyshyn-Piper, a trained U.S. Navy salvage diver, is a veteran of two spacewalks and 12 days in space during NASA's STS-115 construction flight to the International Space Station in September 2006. Broderick is making a return trip to Aquarius, where he worked as part of the undersea station's NEEMO 9 crew in April 2006.

"We need to figure out better ways to care for astronauts before we make the long trip to Mars," Broderick said.

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