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Four astronauts will assist in a landmark surgical procedure tomorrow which will lay the groundwork for remote surgery on astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS).

The operation will take place in an undersea theatre in the US, with the aid of a robot, while the surgeon will be 2000 miles away in Canada. For the first time the instructions will be sent by radio, rather than by cable. The NASA team will travel to the underwater lab today.

Surgeon Mehran Anvari of St Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario, will perform the operation on a surgical dummy, New Scientist reports.

He will use the Zeus robotic surgical system to control a robot in the Aquarius lab, 19 metres under water in Florida. The robot has three arms, one of which features an endoscope. The system was originally developed to give the surgeon more control over very delicate operations.

Although the robot was designed to operate in the vicinity of the patient, Anvari will have sufficient control over the robot to carry out minor surgeries, like a gall bladder removal, provided the signal is not delayed by more than 0.7s. Signal latency should not be an issue in orbit, either.

As well as assisting in the wireless, remote surgery, the NASA astronauts will try to perform various procedures on themselves under Anvari's remote direction. The idea is to find out how much medical knowledge and expertise is needed to carry out various medical procedures. Tim Broderick of the University of Cincinnati, says that the Aquarius lab is a good facsimile of the ISS. He points out that people can’t be ferried quickly to and from an underwater station any more than they can be shuttled speedily in and out of orbit.

The results of the experiment might help answer the question of whether to install a robotic surgeon on board the ISS, or continue to bring astronauts back to Earth if they need surgery. Bringing an astronaut down is an expensive business, and NASA would surely prefer to avoid it if possible. ®

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