Astronauts return to the deep for NEEMO 9

Canadian astronauts and surgeons will take the plunge again this fall as part of an underwater mission to study the latest remote surgical technologies and techniques for future use in medical care and space exploration.

The NEEMO 9 mission is a joint project involving the Centre for Minimal Access Surgery (CMAS) at McMaster University, the US Army Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and NASA.

In his role as chief scientific officer of the telemedicine experiment, Dr. Mehran Anvari will head up the 18-day NEEMO 9 mission — the longest to date — from CMAS, which is located at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont. The underwater crew includes Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronauts Dr. David Williams and Chris Hadfield, NASA astronauts Lee Morin, NEEMO 9 mission commander, Ronald Garan and Nicole Stott, and Dr. Tim Broderick of the University of Cincinnati. They will be traveling down to Florida for a week in September for advanced training before the mission “splashes down” on October 3.

“We are excited about the potential to explore beyond where we left off,” said Anvari in a teleconference Thursday, adding the crew experienced spatial- and weather-related challenges on the last mission. “We need to design systems that can function with time delays which can vary with bad weather and can be assembled and function in a small, extreme habitat under the water.”

For this NEEMO 9 mission, astronauts will be testing new telecommunications technologies like wireless IP, which will connect the underwater habitat Aquarius, which is 19 metres below sea level, to the National Marine Sanctuary located 5.6 km off Key Largo in the Florida Keys. The Hamilton site will be connected via a variety of communications technologies including IP, VPN and satellite from telecommunication companies Bell Canada and Cisco Systems.

The habitat, which costs US$12,000 per day to operate, is an exact replica of a lunar base with an interior atmospheric pressure equal to the surrounding water pressure that requires the crew or “aquanauts” to undergo a 17-hour decompression in a chamber to avoid the risk of decompression sickness or “the bends.” The crew will use this environment to study the effects of fatigue and stressors in preparation for future exploration missions to the moon. In February, U.S. President George Bush announced plans for human and robotic exploration of the moon and Mars over the next few decades.

Aside from space exploration, the crew will conduct telemedicine experiments as a follow-up to previous missions. Astronauts will study the impact of long-term delays in telesurgery that occur when going from one corner of the world to another where more than one satellite hop is required to get to that destination. The crew will also be simulating a series of medical conditions like trauma in which a robot in Hamilton will repair a vascular injury, for example.

Since the inception of CMAS in 1999, the centre has performed 22 complex surgeries telerobotically with a community near North Bay, Ont. Anvari said CMAS is in the midst of discussions with the Canadian government to expand to several communities across the country including Chicoutimi, Que., Yellowknife and Whitehorse.

“It’s a matter of slowly getting the support to spread that across the vast northern part of Canada,” said Anvari. “It’s a way to solve the physician shortage in each of these communities.”

For Williams, this is one of the most exciting parts about the whole mission but he points out that the communication capabilities might be lacking in remote locales.

“To perform these procedures in rural communities means that you have to have some highspeed telecommunications ability to the rural community,” said Williams. “In Canada we also have expertise in telecommunications satellites, which enable us to link up to rural communities in Canada. We’re looking at the application of these technologies to change the face of medicine in the future.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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