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Canada aims to provide medical technologies for deep space exploration


Canada plays a big part in the U.S. space program. The Canadarm, for instance, is critical hardware on the International Space Station. Now Canada is angling to provide medical tech for deep space exploration. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: To get to Mars, astronauts will have to spend months in space. A major challenge will be making sure they stay healthy during the trip. Lightweight, remotely operable medical equipment will be essential. To develop that equipment, the Canadian Space Agency started the Deep Space Healthcare Challenge. Annie Martin runs the challenge. She says there weren't any restrictions on what people could propose.

ANNIE MARTIN: We didn't want to limit any potential great ideas.

PALCA: While it's true Canada wants a role in space exploration, the same technologies could play a role in providing health care to people in that country's many small and isolated communities.

MARTIN: We're looking for a solution that could first address remote health care needs on Earth.

PALCA: Martin says they got about a hundred entries for the health care challenge, and there are a variety of intriguing ideas - clothing that can detect problems with muscles or joints, patches that can provide an early alert about heart problems. And then there's Gordon Sarty's idea.

GORDON SARTY: And the idea is simple - put MRI into space.

PALCA: MRIs are used to provide detailed images of what's going on inside someone's body. Most MRI machines weigh many tons. Sarty has been working on MRIs at the University of Saskatchewan for years, and he thinks he can make a pint-sized version.

SARTY: A couple hundred kilograms max.

PALCA: While not as versatile as its heavier cousins, Sarty says the MRI he wants to build will still be useful for spotting medical problems.

SARTY: Tumors - you can still see tumors. Maybe not as small of a tumor as you could with a larger MRI, but those kinds of capabilities are all still there.

PALCA: Of course, there's still the issue of what to do about a tumor if you find one. There are no mini clinics or emergency rooms on the way to Mars. Canada is hoping to be part of the creative thinking it will take to solve that problem as well.

Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.

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