This Remotely Controlled Robot Will Conduct a Simulated Surgery on the International Space Station

Robot surgeons could treat astronauts on long space missions—but they could also be used on Earth in places where surgeons aren’t present, such as rural areas or war zones

A person holding a robotic arm
University of Nebraska engineer Sean Crimmins loads the robotic arm into its case. A surgeon on Earth will remotely guide the robot through a surgical simulation while it is on the International Space Station. Craig Chandler / University of Nebraska-Lincoln / University Communication and Marketing

Scientists have sent a small surgical robot to the International Space Station (ISS) where it will perform a simulation of surgery, remotely guided by an expert on Earth.

The research aims to learn more about how surgery might be conducted on long space missions that send humans to the moon, Mars or beyond, as well as on our home planet, where not everyone has access to a surgeon.

“It’s taken a lot of testing to build up to this, and we’re still a long way from telesurgery on an actual patient,” Shane Farritor, an engineer at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and one of the inventors of the robot, says in a statement. “The first step is to demonstrate the technology.”

The robot launched to the ISS on January 30 with a host of other scientific experiments. Named MIRA, or the Miniaturized In vivo Robotic Assistant, it arrived on February 1, according to NPR’s Juliana Kim.

MIRA is developed by the Virtual Incision Corporation, and the experiment in space is made possible by a NASA grant to the University of Nebraska. Farritor, Virtual Incision’s co-founder, started working on MIRA with his team almost 20 years ago.

Weighing only two pounds, the device is roughly 1,000 times lighter than existing robot-assisted surgery technologies, according to a statement from Virtual Incision. MIRA has two robotic arms, a camera and remote technology, per the Washington Post’s Erin Blakemore. It’s the first surgical robot on the ISS.

MIRA™ Surgical Robotic Platform

In an upcoming experiment, a surgeon on the ground in Lincoln, Nebraska, will guide MIRA through a surgical simulation using remote-controlled technology. MIRA will use its left arm to grasp and its right arm to cut.

The preliminary tests will be conducted on rubber bands, according to’s Monisha Ravisetti. A spokesperson for Virtual Incision told the Washington Post that the experiments will take place in the second week of February.

One challenge with the simulated surgery is possible delays in communication, since the signal must transmit to and from the International Space Station, which is around 250 miles away.

The experiment will allow the team to test the impact of the space station’s zero gravity environment on surgical tasks. But researchers are also interested in how the robot could be used on the ground, such as in rural areas or on military battlefields.

About one in three counties in the U.S. lack a surgeon, and the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts the nation could face a shortage of up to 30,000 surgeons within the next ten years.

“While space travel is exciting to think about, there is also an immediate need on Earth to help patients get the care they need,” Farritor says in a statement. “Remote surgery has the potential to address these issues.”

“If you have a specialist who’s a very good surgeon, that specialist could dial into different locations and help with telesurgery or remote surgery,” Farritor said during a presentation last month, per “Only about 10 percent of operating rooms today are robotic, but we don’t see any reason that shouldn’t be 100 percent.”

While there has been other research into remote surgery, the surgeon has typically been in the same operating room as the patient, according to Virtual Incision. Eventually, the company hopes to have surgeons control MIRA through a console during procedures.

Alongside the robot, several other experiments traveled to the ISS, including a 3D printer that creates small metal parts, an additional robotic arm and experiments to manufacture artificial retinas and regenerate cartilage tissue in space.

MIRA will return to Earth in the spring, and it will likely take at least a year to publish results from the experiment, according to the University of Nebraska.

“As thrilling as it is to have our technology in space, we expect the impact of this research will be most notable on Earth,” John Murphy, president and CEO of Virtual Incision, says in the company’s statement.

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