31 August 2022


Blog, Media Updates, Space

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The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the significant benefits that space can offer in supporting our health, in particular for large-scale monitoring of what is happening on Earth and enabling a wide range of eHealth and telemedicine applications. Space technology and expertise is behind a whole host of other health-related developments too, from healing wounds to managing chronic illness and even an artificial heart. In the 2020s, space is benefitting our health in more ways than we could ever have imagined.

This post, which discusses which healthcare products and services are using these space technologies, and other areas where space is helping our health, is based on an article in OpenSpace 30 magazine.

1 – Remote health services

Before COVID-19 changed our world, a range of health services had been set up for people living in remote areas utilising satellite communications to provide reliable connectivity. Remote diagnosis of patients by a doctor many miles away is no longer the stuff of science fiction.

2 – Air quality monitoring

Satellite data provides us with the means to monitor many aspects of the environment that may affect our health. One focus is air pollution, which is not good for anyone but can be particularly serious for those with respiratory illnesses.

Different types of satellite are being used to develop pollution-related smartphone apps, including Earth observation (EO) satellites that monitor land use, meteorological conditions and the composition of Earth’s atmosphere. Global navigation satellite systems such as Galileo are important too, as they provide accurate positioning and timing data. And satellite communication services can be used to help connect sensors on the ground where terrestrial mobile networks are unreliable or non-existent. Such sensors can also be used to track pollen counts.

3 – Sunlight monitoring

Sunlight is good for our mental health and as a source of vitamin D, but has its downsides too. Both apps and wearables can be used to track sunlight levels and exposure, helping people to avoid over-exposure and any associated health risks, and support those whose health may benefit from carefully managed exposure to sunlight. People with lupus, for example, can experience a range of symptoms of varying severity when exposed to sunlight. Conversely, those with psoriasis may find that the sun helps improve their skin’s appearance, as long as the exposure is carefully spread over time.

One of many examples is an app and wearable combination named SunSense One. This uses a range of satellite-based data sources, including daily updates from the EUMETSAT, to enable users to better manage their sun exposure.

4 – Cold plasma healing

Viromed treatment device using cold plasma for wound treatment
© Terraplasma Medical

Plasma – the stuff outside your body, rather than in your blood – is usually a hot ionized gas, but it is possible to create cold plasmas at room temperature.

Plasma experiments have been running on the International Space Station for over 20 years. Cold plasma has proved to be an effective bactericidal agent and can tackle fungi, viruses and spores, leading to its use in handheld mobile devices that can treat wounds and skin diseases by holding them against the skin, and a small unit to treat nail fungus.

5 – Exploiting space optics

Developing and improving optical solutions is key for many space missions, including space telescopes and EO satellites, and these can have valuable applications on Earth too.

Engraving a triocular lens - image copyright BVI
Engraving a trifocal intraocular lens. © BVI

Replacement lenses for the eye is one area that has benefited, thanks to mathematical techniques learnt from the development of optical lenses for space missions. Originally, replacement eye lenses only had one focal point in the far distance, so patients had to wear glasses to read, watch TV or drive. But by applying knowledge gained through working on space projects, a ‘trifocal’ intraocular lens was developed with three focal points, one each in the far, intermediate and near fields of vision. The brain then cleverly separates the three images and focuses solely on the one it needs to see at any one time. Over 900,000 trifocal intraocular lenses have been implanted worldwide since the technology was created in 2010.

How optical data is processed for space missions has also enabled development of an augmented reality headset technology for visually impaired people. It processes the images and projects the augmented feed onto the working part of their retinas.

Augmented reality techniques gained from an ESA study on visualization tools for astronauts provided the foundation for another headset, this time for people losing their muscular function, including the ability to communicate verbally. The glasses detect the movement of the eyes across a virtual keyboard displayed on the inside of its lenses, translating the words the user spells out and speaking them out loud. Users can also navigate the Internet and read emails.

6 – Tiny sensor for neonatal care

Tiny sensor for neonatal care - image copyright Fourth State Systems
© Fourth State Systems

Globally, preterm birth is the primary cause of death for infants under the age of 5 years. Many of those deaths could be saved if neonatal care instruments were less complex and therefore cheaper.

One solution is a tiny blood gas sensor for frequent monitoring of oxygen levels. Based on research that was originally done to develop miniaturized instruments for astrobiology, it allows monitoring to be done quickly and safely, even on tiny babies.

7 – Creating an artificial heart

The electronics on board satellites must be extremely reliable, because once they are in space, there is no possibility of sending an engineer to do repairs when something goes wrong – long-term dependability is crucial. The expertise required to guarantee such reliability has been applied to an artificial heart, because any such device also needs to be very reliable and last for at least 5 years. One such solution, which has already been used in a number of human implant operations, is a prosthetic incorporating miniaturized satellite equipment.