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Surgery on Mars: Headset could let astronauts wield scalpel

The European Space Agency is testing an augmented-reality setup that could one day let nonsurgeon astronauts perform surgery. The device could also be used in remote locations on Earth, and by emergency responders.

Camdass uses a stereo head-mounted display and an ultrasound tool tracked by infrared camera. The patient is tracked using markers placed on the body at the area in question. ESA/Space Applications Service NV

What do you do if you're an injured astronaut and your doctor absolutely refuses to make Mars calls?

Well, the European Space Agency is trying to address that question. The ESA is testing a wearable augmented-reality device that might one day enable astronauts who aren't doctors to perform surgery on ailing colleagues.

The Camdass headset being tried out on a plastic head during the 2011 International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality in Basel, Switzerland. (Click to enlarge.) ESA/Space Applications Service NV

Astronauts haven't whipped out the scalpels just yet--the device is currently being tested as a tool for ultrasound examinations that let users look patients over and diagnose a medical condition. But the agency said in a recent post to its Web site that "in principle [it] could guide other procedures."

In a nutshell, the device--the Computer Assisted Medical Diagnosis and Surgery System, or Camdass--works as follows. While moving an ultrasound probe along the patient, the user wears a headset that displays a 3D image of healthy tissue along with the ultrasound images of the patient.

The device, according to the ESA, "precisely [combines] computer-generated graphics with the wearer's view." Hence, differences--and problems--can be spotted.

The setup is, of course, a little more complicated than that. Markers are placed at various points of interest on the patient's body, and an infrared camera tracks the ultrasound probe, all of which lets the system line up the similarly marked images in its database with the images of the patient.

"Future astronauts venturing further into space must be able to look after themselves," the ESA says on its site. "Depending on their distance from Earth, discussions with experts on the ground will involve many minutes of delay or even be blocked entirely." In other words, relying on a telephone call with a doctor while on the moon is out of the question. Since Camdass would rely on images stored in its own database, guidance would be instantaneous.

A prototype of the device has been tested at Saint-Pierre University Hospital in Brussels, Belgium, with medical and nursing students and Belgian Red Cross and paramedic staff, and the ESA says tests have been going well.

"Untrained users found they could perform a reasonably difficult procedure without other help, with effective probe positioning," according to the agency's site.

And uses for the device are not limited to outer space. The agency says Camdass could be used in isolated locations on Earth and as a tool for emergency responders.

"It would be interesting to perform more testing in remote locations, in the developing world and potentially in the Concordia Antarctic base," said Arnaud Runge, a biomedical engineer overseeing the project for ESA. "Eventually, [Camdass] could be used in space."