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Tech by VICE

How Space Tech Improves Eye Surgery

An innovation in space telescopes has applications in surgical microscopes too.

by Victoria Turk
Feb 24 2014, 12:30pm
Image: Community Eye Health/Flickr

Space researchers might get all the coolest tech first, but lucky for us a lot of it ends up closer to home, in terrestrial applications that affect our everyday earthbound life. One area particularly ripe for crossover applications is imaging; space exploration requires ever-more-powerful technologies to look at stuff increasingly further away, in increasingly close detail.

But there are a lot of scientific applications that involve looking at stuff—indeed, what is science without observation? And so it is that one device originally developed to help look at very big things, like planets, has been appropriated by surgeons to look at very small things, like the details of a human eye. 

The European Space Agency reports on the use of the Hummingbird device, a kind of steadying system originally developed for telescopic work in space, to stop vibrations from getting in the way of microscopic imaging in eye surgery. Doctors at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands have adopted the space tech to combat persistent microscope shake that was getting in the way of one in five operations.

Eye operations require a powerful microscope mounted on the ceiling, but they found it often vibrated too much to perform such delicate work. As eye surgeon Carroll Webers explained, “When you’re working within less than 1 mm, a shaky microscope is not an option.”

They even removed a speed bump outside the hospital, which caused vibrations every time a bus went over, but still had problems—which they eventually put down to wind blowing against the walls and causing low-frequency vibrations that weren’t even noticeable to the human eye, but that were all too noticeable when operating on one, thanks to the microscope's powerful magnification.

What it's like looking at an eye through a microscope with and without the Hummingbird device. Video: " target="_blank">MECALdevelopment/Youtube

Dutch engineering company MECAL installed the Hummingbird, which was originally developed as part of the ESA’s Darwin project by the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO). The Darwin mission proposed to send a constellation of spacecraft out to search for Earth-like planets and evidence of extraterrestrial life, but it never got past initial study phases. 

While they were working on the idea, however, TNO had pretty much the same vibration problem viewing telescope images as the hospital did with their microscope images, and they developed Hummingbird as a solution. After Darwin was abandoned, they took it to MECAL. It’s a great example of space tech making an impact on earth, and the trickle-down effect of investment in space programs.

Hummingbird attaches to the ceiling, where MECAL explains it “serves as a filter between the ceiling and the microscope and successfully isolates sensitive microsurgical microscopes from all building vibrations, even at the lowest frequencies.” The general idea is quite simple: it uses sensors to measure vibrations, then actuators to counter them by pushing with an equal force in the opposite direction.

“After installation of the Hummingbird platform, all visible microscope image vibrations were eliminated, even for the highest microscope magnification factors,” the company wrote, and added that the Maastricht clinic now uses the technology every day.

Planet-seeking to eye surgery might seem like a big leap, but it’s not all that unusual. In 2012’s NASA spinoff report, an annual publication that showcases the earthly descendants of the space agency’s tech, one innovation highlighted was LADARTrackr, a tracking device that can measure eye-tracking movements up to 4,000 times a second for use in Lasik surgery. That was originally developed as part of a project to create an autonomous docking system for space vehicles.

Another spinoff the following year also improved Lasik procedures; algorithms developed for the James Webb Space Telescope were found to make a scanning machine used in diagnosis 21 times faster. 

In unexpected ways, it turns out, looking at space is good for our eyes.

Front page image: Janine Nelson/Flickr