NASA Successfully Tests Portable Diagnostic Device to Monitor Astronaut Health


When astronauts stay on the International Space Station (ISS) for long-duration missions, they experience several health complications including bone loss, space anaemia, and changes in bone marrow. The effects on microgravity on blood production and bone health are not felt when the astronauts are in space, but become pronounced after they return to Earth. Therefore, it is very important to monitor astronaut health. NASA has successfully tested a portable medical diagnostic device aboard the ISS that will help astronauts monitor their health by evaluating their physical condition.

Experts from NASA’s Human Research Program’s Exploration Medical Capability (ExMC) team, in a recent technology demonstration, successfully tested the Reusable Handheld Electrolyte and Laboratory Technology for Humans (rHEALTH) ONE biomedical analyzer. This is a portable device that uses laser technology to diagnose illness or injury, the space agency says on its website.

How Does rHEALTH Work?

The device was launched to the orbital laboratory in February. It is a miniature flow cytometer that can detect cells and other biomarkers to assess biological changes. A flow cytometer is a device that uses lasers as light sources to produce both scattered and fluorescent light signals which are read by detectors. The signals are converted into electronic signals that are read by a computer. rHEALTH was put through a series of tests on the space station over two days by European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.

What Medical Conditions Do Astronauts Experience?

NASA’s ExMC group is working to provide medical tools and capabilities for astronauts to use in exploration spaceflight. The team adapted the rHEALTH analyzer for use in microgravity.

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The different medical conditions that can affect astronauts who live for prolonged periods in space include blood clots, kidney stones, radiation exposure, illnesses and injuries, among others. When astronauts go to the Moon or Mars, they will not have access to traditional medical diagnostics and treatments.

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How Can rHEALTH Analyzer Be Used?

In a statement released by NASA, Eugene Chan, the inventor of rHEALTH, said that astronauts could use rHEALTH to perform a full self-diagnosis without technical training. He added that they only need a drop of blood, saliva, or urine to put into the reader and within minutes, they have the results of a range of crucial health indicators.

rHEALTH offers a two-pronged approach. A sensor is affixed to the chest and streams real-time vital signs to the astronauts and NASA’s medical team on Earth, according to the statement. The astronaut collects a single biological sample, which could be blood, saliva or urine, on a nanostrip. After this, the nanostrip is inserted into the device. Once the nanostrip is inside the rHEALTH reader, microfluidic technology performs dilution, mixing, and completes sample preparation.

Next, the sample is exposed to two lasers that read and analyze it. The lasers collect over 100 million raw data points for particles the size of cells. According to NASA, thousands of tests are recorded and referenced to calibrators. After this, the results are communicated to the astronaut and physicians on the ground within minutes.

The demonstration, which uses small samples, is the first-of-its-kind in orbit. It allows astronauts the potential to get much more biomedical information, faster.

How Was rHEALTH Analyzer Modified To Function In Microgravity?

The rHEALTH analyzer was modified to function in microgravity, before launching it to the space station. Gravity pulls water to the bottom of containers, and causes air to rise to the top. However, in space, water and air float freely together.

Engineers adapted all the external connections to seal the water in and create air/water separation techniques to keep air bubbles out. The rHEALTH unit functions in a way such that water is pushed with air pressure and the sample flows through the device. Engineers designed a container that could be squeezed easily and made an assembly with soft medical balloons that looks just like a pair of lungs, according to NASA.

Gail Perusek, project manager for ExMC, said that NASA has made a concerted effort to sponsor and test medical technologies over the past decades to advance human health and performance in space. She stated that rHEALTH is a great example of this partnership between NASA and industry to bring the best technologies to flight.

Perusek explained that each of these successful tests on the space station help scientists get closer to designing and building a complete integrated medical architecture to accompany explorers into deep space.

The scientists in NASA’s ExMC team evaluate various commercially available medical technologies developed on the ground to test them aboard the space station for potential use in future exploration space missions.


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