Astronaut health is a huge concern, as studies have shown muscle and bone mass are at risk on longer missions; that's just what we know about, too. The problem is how to fit out a space station or future moon base with medical equipment compact and safe enough to do the job. Now, thanks to researchers in Canada, there is a compact magnetic resonance imagining (MRI) machine that could one day head to space to help astronauts.
Gordon Sarty, acting chairman of the biomedical engineering division at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, and his team have developed a compact MRI that could provide detailed images of what's going on inside an astronaut's arms or legs. This mini MRI could weigh less than a ton versus the 11-ton Earth version, would require less power and costs could drop from $2 million to $200,000.
Bringing an MRI to space — even the mini version is not without complications. Though Sarty's version would weigh one twentieth of a conventional version, he still needed to tackle how to revise some of the more dangerous aspects of conventional MRI's for the space environment.
Conventional MRIs work by using radiofrequency coils to send signals to the human body and receive signals in return that help build the picture of the body's insides. Giant superconducting magnets cooled by liquid helium and controlled by gradient coils are also used to control the magnetic fields that produce the exacting slice imagery of the scanned body part.
The magnets are what push up the weight, and the stray magnetic fields could interfere with space station equipment. Then there is the problem of the immense amount of power required to run the gradient coils of conventional machines. They too, could put a strain on space station operations.