Space, the final frontier. So much has been invested into sending rockets and satellites up into the orbit of Earth and her surrounding planets including the ambitious International Space Station.

Yet, none of those investments were for naught, as the new technologies developed to tackle the trials of space all eventually trickle down to bring positive benefits back to Earth.

1. Robotic arms that remove brain tumours

First debuting in 1981 on-board the Space Shuttle Columbia, the robotic arm, Canadarm, was used to complete various precision manipulations tasks in space while keeping the astronauts out of harms’ reach. The success of the robotic arm even saw it being adopted in the International Space Station and technology ultimately trickled down to form the neuroArm.

Similar to Canadarm, the neuroArm was a high precision robotic arm capable of carrying out various impressive tasks such as removing brain tumours and performing real-time MRI guided precision surgery. Due to the fact that neuroArm is made entirely out of non-magnetic materials – the robotic arm can be used to carry out surgical procedures in a magnetic field; something previously impossible. Moreover, there are also plans to further miniaturise the neuroArm for application in paediatric surgery.

2. Advanced eye tracking in laser eye surgery

When in space, the lack of gravity causes changes in eye movement. To track these changes in microgravity environments, astronauts have advanced eye tracking systems which investigate tri-dimensional eye movements such as yaw, pitch and roll.

3. Helping asthmatics breathe

Nitric oxide is a very common air pollutant and one that affects asthmatic patients more so than ordinary individuals. The gas is present when there is airway inflammation with a higher than normal concentration found in exhaled air of asthmatic patients.

However, it is not a problem that is just confined to Earth, as the International Space Station has to deal with nitric oxide as a waste gas too. By using a lightweight device, the European Space Agency can accurately measure the amount of nitric oxide in exhaled air.

The aim is to detect and investigate possible airway inflammation in astronauts and treat them before it becomes a health problem. Now, this device is being trickled down into the consumer market, allowing asthmatics to have better control over their condition. All of this leads to more efficient dosages, reduced incidences of asthma and an improved quality of life.

4. Measuring body temperature

Several decades back, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory developed infrared technology and implemented them into satellites to measure the temperature of distant stars and planets by reading the infrared radiation emitted from them. In 1991, the technology was sized down and implemented into a new infrared thermometer, allowing for near instant measurement of body temperature based on the energy emitted from the eardrum.

This technology has been proven to be effective. Additionally, several improvements over these two decades has seen the infrared thermometer become the standard in temperature measurement.

5. Hand-held ultrasound beams to treat kidney stones

Being in space increases the inherent risk of developing kidney stones due to various factors including alterations in hydration status, bone metabolism and exposure to microgravity.

While kidney stones are considered a low-risk medical condition back on Earth, its weight is considerably more serious in space with severe health implications. These include impact in performance, development of severe medical problems and even the need for crew member evacuation.

As such, researchers at NASA have been working on a handheld ultrasonic device that can be used to reposition and expel kidney stones from the kidney. Early studies have shown no adverse effects and no long-term tissue injury which paves the way for this technology to be implemented on Earth too.

6. Invisible teeth braces

Developed in 1986, translucent polycrystalline alumina (TPA) was created in the quest for a transparent material of sufficient tensile strength to be used in orthodontic treatment. Prior to that, it was initially developed by Ceradyne, a leader in advanced ceramics for defense, aerospace, electronics and industrial uses, looking for a special material to be used for defence purposes. 

TPA was then transitioned into the field of orthodontics as transparent braces due to its shatter resistant yet highly translucent nature. Now, it is still being used for transparent teeth braces and has been met with great market success. MIMS

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How space is set to solve some of medicine’s biggest problems
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