From October 11 to 22, 2004

Photo of NEEMO 7 crewmembers

NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) 7 crewmembers just before they prepare to splash down. (Credit: NASA)

Photo of Dr. Craig McKinley followed by his crewmates

Dr. Craig McKinley is followed by his crewmates as they make their way to Aquarius. (Credit: NASA)

Photo of the telemetry system

The telemetry system antenna and broadcast box are located at the top of the life support buoy tower. (Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and University of North Carolina at Wilmington)

The International Space Station (ISS) can be seen in Canada's night sky and also from most parts of the world. The ISS provides an opportunity for Canadians to participate in space research. There is a station in "inner space," that is, underwater, called Aquarius, the world's only undersea laboratory dedicated to marine science and education. Aquarius provides an environment remarkably similar to that onboard the ISS, and is similar in size to the modules of the ISS. Aquanauts coordinate operations remotely through the mission control centre, located 4.5 km away in Key Largo, and experiments are conducted underwater using spacewalk techniques.

A successful dive for telemedicine

Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk  was commander of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) 7 crew, a joint mission involving Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and McMaster University's Centre for Minimal Access Surgery (CMAS). Astronauts became aquanauts October 11 to 21, 2004, and stayed aboard Aquarius, the underwater laboratory where they conducted a telemedecine mission.

Robert Thirsk worked with American astronauts Michael Barratt and Catherine Coleman as well as Dr. Craig McKinley, a CMAS surgeon. Under the direction of noted surgeon Dr. Mehran Anvari, the experienced crew demonstrated and assessed new telemedecine technologies. In 2003, Dr. Anvari became the first surgeon in the world to carry out a telerobotics-assisted operation.

Nineteen metres beneath the sea

The NEEMO missions use the underwater laboratory Aquarius, located off Key Largo, Florida. This habitat, owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and operated by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington's National Undersea Research Center (NURC), is mainly used for ocean and coastal research. It is also used to create an isolated environment similar to that of a station or shuttle in space. Aquarius rests 19 metres beneath the sea; it measures 3 by 14 metres. The laboratory is equipped with computers, telephones, a videoconferencing system and even Internet access. Its ambient pressure is the same as that on the sea floor outside the cabin, which is higher than the pressure on land. Therefore, aquanauts must undergo a 17-hour decompression period before returning to the surface after such a long underwater stay.

Technology in the service of science

The NEEMO 7 mission highlighted two types of activity: telementoring and telerobotics. Dr. Anvari and the crew conducted telementoring exercises by performing a number of operations remotely. From a medical centre on land, Dr. Anvari used a two-way telecommunications hookup to guide an apprentice surgeon through the various stages of surgical operations aboard Aquarius.

New telerobotics techniques were tested. By means of virtual-reality technology, Dr Anvari's movements were translated into the movements of a robot on board the underwater laboratory. These experiments tested the potential for using robotics during a space mission.

Soon, the new remote technologies tested by the NEEMO 7 crew will make it possible to provide curative treatment and make diagnoses for patients at a distance. Recent Canadian discoveries in telecommunications and biomedical technologies have greatly improved our ability to provide specialized health care in remote regions of the country. By putting these advances into practice, the processes tested aboard Aquarius will also contribute to improved quality of life for Canadians.

Photo of underwater life

Underwater life (Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and University of North Carolina at Wilmington)

Photo of Dr. Anvari explaining abdominal anatomy

Dr. Anvari explains abdominal anatomy to NEEMO 7 crewmembers. (Credit: NASA)

Photo of Mike Barratt and Bob Thirsk

Mike Barratt and Bob Thirsk learn how to operate the instruments to operate at distance. (Credit: NASA)

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