Nebraska Engineering professor and Virtual Incision co-founder Shane Farritor watches as Dr. Michael Jobst, a colorectal surgery specialist in Lincoln, NE, makes the first surgical robotic cut on the International Space Station. Using controls at the Virtual Incision offices in Lincoln, surgeons cut rubber bands — mimicking surgery inside a payload box on the Space Station. (Credit: Craig Chandler/University Communication and Marketing, University of Nebraska)

In a test that featured half a dozen surgeons from across the United States, a miniature robot successfully completed a surgical simulation aboard the International Space Station.

“Tell the astronauts they have six extra surgeons today,” says Yuman Fong, a liver surgeon from the City of Hope Cancer Center in Los Angeles, as he watched a surgeon from Houston guide the robot using hand and foot controls from a console at the Lincoln headquarters of Virtual Incision, a private company created to develop the MIRA robot. “If they ever need us in the future, it would take us less than a second to get there.”

MIRA — which stands for Miniaturized In Vivo Robotic Assistant — is the world’s only small form factor robotic-assisted surgery device. The research team leveraged MIRA’s unique design to create spaceMIRA, an iteration that allows pre-programmed as well as long-distance remote surgery operation modes.

The robot blasted off January 30 from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station aboard a SpaceX rocket carrying a Northrop Grumman cargo vehicle. It is the first surgical robot aboard the space station and one of the first times remote surgery tasks have been tested in space.

SpaceMIRA, which is about 30 inches long and weighs about 2 pounds, performed its maneuvers while inside a microwave-oven-sized experiment locker. The cylindrical device, which looks a bit like an oversized stick blender, is topped with two arms — the left fitted with a grasper, the right with scissors. An integrated, articulating camera enables the operator to see the robot as it works.

During the surgical demonstration, the signal latency ranged from two-thirds to three-fourths of a second gap for action at the control center to be executed by the robot aboard the Space Station. To compensate for the lag, engineers experimented with different scaling factors for the Earth-based controls, so that bigger motions on Earth would result in smaller movements by the robot.

While a large monitor on the right of the control center showed multiple views of Earth from the Space Station, screens on the left side of the room provided the robot’s operator a view of the robot’s hands and the work station inside its box. A total of 10 rubber bands were tethered on metal panels to the left, right and center before the robot. In a simulation of motions, tension and texture of tissue in surgery, the surgeons’ task was to maneuver the robot into position and use its “hands” to grasp the band, pull it taut and cut it.

After each band was cut in the front and in the back, for a total of 20 possible cuts, its still-attached ends floated nearly motionless in microgravity. In a brief orientation session, the surgeons were warned not to cut the bands into multiple pieces and not to risk breaking the robot by bumping it into the sides and back of the experiment locker. Any loose debris could prove disastrous to the Space Station.