Star Trek may have had Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy around to keep the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise safe from space bugs, but at present, an astronaut with an illness must send samples down to Earth for analysis and diagnosis. This all may change soon, thanks to a diagnostic device called Microflow, which will be headed to the International Space Station for testing in December.
Microflow, designed by Quebec-based National Optics Institute (INO) for the Canadian Space Agency, is basically a run-of-the-mill flow cytometer, which is a common laboratory instrument that uses lasers and sensors to analyze a liquid sample. However, Microflow has a couple special features that make it suitable for use in space. First, it’s portable and lightweight. Most flow cytometers weigh hundreds of pounds and take up a good deal of space in a lab; Microflow weighs in at a mere 22 pounds (10 kg) and is about the same size as a toaster. Second, Microflow works in zero-gravity. To accomplish this feat, researchers built a device that suspends particles in a tiny amount of liquid inside a small fiber-optic structure that is permanently focused, which allows the particles to be analyzed in weightless conditions in just ten minutes.
Up on the ISS, Microflow could change how astronauts are able to diagnose and treat themselves during long-durations missions. The best part is that, if successful, Microflow could find its way back to Earth to offer real-time analysis of everything from infections to cancer markers, and even for food monitoring. Moreover, because Microflow is much smaller and less expensive than most standard flow cytometers, it would be perfect for use in remote areas and disaster zones.
Article from NASA: Microflow: Diagnosing Medical Conditions on Earth and in Space
More info from INO: Microflow…
(hat tip: GIzmodo)