Using ultrasound in space

An Interview with:
Scott A. Dulchavsky, M.D., Ph.D.
Henry Ford Health System
NSBRI Smart Medical Systems and Technology Team

Courtesy of EarthSky Communications

Scott Dulchavsky: Say an astronaut is going out to work on some of the solar panels, and they have to put on their special spacesuit to go outside of the vehicle. They have to lower the pressure in that spacesuit, and that puts some stresses on the lungs. That might cause a collapsed lung.

That's Scott Dulchavsky, chairman of surgery at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and an investigator with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. He developed a technique to train crews to do medical quality ultrasounds aboard the International Space Station to diagnose injuries quickly. Dulchavsky said a chest X-ray diagnosis of a collapsed lung typically takes about 10 minutes.

Scott Dulchavsky: We've now come up with a way to make that diagnosis in about 10 seconds, actually more accurately than that chest X-ray.

Astronauts send the ultrasound image to Earth via satellite. Two seconds later, it shows up on a screen, where experts can see it and guide the astronaut through the procedure. Dulchavsky said a next step is to use them to bring medical care to far-flung earthly locations.

Scott Dulchavsky: For example, Sambiani, Madagascar, sub-Saharan Africa, where we could have a device, we could have it connected much as we do on the space station, to a remote expert.

X-rays, CAT scans and MRIs are too big, bulky and heavy to be of practical use on the space station. Comparatively, the ultrasound machine on the space station is light and compact. It weighs about 70 pounds and is the size of two suitcases. That's important on spaceships, because every ounce of payload costs money to launch. The first ultrasound experiments in space were performed in 2003, and ultrasound was used on the International Space Station in 2008.

Ultrasound machines use high-frequency sound waves to make a picture of the inside of the body. They are commonly used to take pictures of babies in utero, but can also help diagnose conditions such as collapsed lungs, broken bones and kidney stones.

Scott Dulchavsky: We worry about five or six hundred potential medical conditions that might occur during a space mission, and we estimate that ultrasound could be used to provide pretty important information on about two-thirds of those.

For the space program, Dulchavsky cut the normal 200-hour ultrasound training time by 99 percent.

Scott Dulchavsky: I get two hours with the crew before they go in space, and then we developed a computer-based program that refreshes their knowledge, that's about 30 minutes in duration, just before they do the examinations.