Space Technology and Medicine

Space technologies have healthcare applications.

01 April 2017
Shouleh Nikzad
Ultraviolet image from NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer shows NGC 3242, a planetary nebula frequently referred to as “Jupiter’s Ghost.”
Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

SPIE joined with other international scientific societies to celebrate the International Year of Light in 2015. Just over 400 years ago, Galileo began the modern era of astronomy when he turned his telescope toward the heavens and discovered the Galilean satellites of Jupiter, forever changing the way we perceive our world.

Last year, we celebrated another astronomical and technological milestone, when an international team of scientists and technologists announced that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) observed and recorded evidence of the merging of two black holes.

Throughout history, scientific progress has depended on discoveries of new ways of seeing. Astronomers and cosmologists have pioneered these conjoined paths of technological innovation and scientific discovery.

In my lab at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), we develop advanced technologies and instrumentation for cosmology, astrophysics, and planetary science. We find these fields to pose the most stringent requirements on detectors.

What does space technology have to do with medicine? Many technologies originally developed for space applications have found their way into the consumer market. Infrared thermometers, workout machines, freeze-dried food, compact cameras in mobile phones, and cordless drills are just a few familiar examples.

Nevertheless, applying astrophysics technologies to medical applications may appear difficult at first, as the scales of time and space are vastly different in these disparate fields. That is to say, until we take a closer look by examining requirements of both fields and recognizing the synergies and opportunities for mutual growth.

Ultraviolet image from NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer shows NGC 3242, a planetary nebula frequently referred to as “Jupiter’s Ghost.”
Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ultraviolet imaging is also used in medical applications to reveal disease, as in this image of cancerous brain tissue.

I have thought a great deal about this as a NASA-JPL scientist-technologist as well as board member and past president of the Society for Brain Mapping and Therapeutics (SBMT). Along the way, I have participated in an editorial capacity for two seemingly disparate SPIE journals, the Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems (JATIS) and Neurophotonics, and have fielded many questions about the synergies between technologies for astronomy (and more generally space science) and medicine.


As explorers, we invest great efforts and resources to develop sensors and instruments to measure signatures from faint objects, characterize planetary atmospheres, observe the remnants of dying stars, explore planetary bodies, and search for signs of life.

These applications require high sensitivity and high accuracy from reliable, robust, compact, low-power, low-mass, noninvasive instruments that can work in harsh and unfriendly environments.

This probably sounds familiar to those in medical sciences and medical practice. As human beings, we invest great efforts and resources to help patients. We try to detect faint signals that differentiate good cells from bad, get close to the area of interest without disturbing other areas, … and look for signs of life.

These conditions also require high sensitivity and high accuracy from reliable, robust, compact, low-power, low-mass, noninvasive instruments that can work in unfriendly environments.


In addition to the sensors and their requirements, there are parallels in data management, subsystem interface management, utilization of robotics, and the incorporation of new technology into final missions, be it a space mission or doctor’s hands. There is great synergy and a great deal to leverage from within these fields of space science and medicine. Given that there are plenty of opportunities, it should be possible to achieve a great deal and obtain great gains, with relatively small investments.

As an example, JPL originally developed the Electronic Nose for environmental monitoring of crewed missions. The ENose was flown on the Space Shuttle during John Glenn Jr.’s second historic flight in 1998 as well as on the International Space Station. Modeled after the way a mammal’s nose operates, the ENose can be trained to recognize patterns and therefore detect the presence and levels of substances.

Inspired by the fact that some dogs can sniff cancer, scientists at JPL and the City of Hope collaborated to use the ENose in a proof-of-concept experiment to determine whether it can distinguish normal cells from brain-cancer cells and skin-cancer cells.

JPL also collaborated with the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, applying its signal processing and radar expertise to problems in medical ultrasound, specifically mapping the regular structure of breast ducts in an effort to better understand ductal carcinoma in-situ. By adapting radar image-classification techniques to ultrasound, we, in turn, help develop feature-detection algorithms that can be used, for example, in radar sounding of ice on Europa, the smallest of the Galilean moons orbiting Jupiter.

In the area of informatics and data science, the Informatics Center at JPL has developed software and methods for planetary research. The US National Cancer Institute’s Early Detection Research Network has leveraged that technology to implement a novel and comprehensive knowledge system that enables researchers to capture, access, and share study data, biospecimen information, and analytic results from collaborating biomarker research centers. The information is integrated into a semantic network that allows users to access and analyze data from over 900 biomarkers that have been studied.

JPL’s infrared imaging technology using quantum well infrared photodetector (QWIP) arrays were used in collaboration with University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine to differentiate between normal cells and cells with higher metabolism rates (indicating cancer). Much like the intended Earth-science, remote-sensing space application, the medical application takes advantage of the high uniformity, high resolution, and highly stable response of QWIP imaging technology.

Arezou Khoshakhlagh and Sarath Gunapala of JPL give an overview on using QWIP and other IR imaging for medical applications in a special section on brain mapping and therapeutics in the January issue of Neurophotonics.

Ultraviolet imaging, low-field magnetic resonance imaging, robotics, and FINDER, a system for finding individuals for disaster and emergency response, are a few more JPL technologies that are in various stages of evaluation by the medical field.

Two years ago, JPL formed a Medical Engineering Forum recognizing this synergy. The forum brings under one umbrella the efforts of JPL scientists to find dual uses of space technology for the medical field. It aims to expand those efforts by working closely with industry, academic institutions, and medical institutions.


The benefits between space technologies and medical applications go both ways.

A recent development at JPL illustrates this point. A team from JPL and the Skull Base Institute led by JPL’s Harish Manohara originally developed MARVEL, a multiangle, rear-viewing endoscopic tool, for minimally invasive brain tumor removal. As described in "4-mm-diameter three-dimensional imaging endoscope with steerable camera for minimally invasive surgery (3-D-MARVEL)," in the special section of Neurophotonics, the tool has stereoscopic vision and fits within a small 4-mm-diameter tube.

It was not long before a space application for the technology was realized. The MARVEL innovation can be used to verify the rock and soil samples collected by robots from planetary bodies, before the samples are returned to Earth.


In addition to examples in the Neurophotonics special section on brain mapping and therapeutics, there will be more on the topic of space technology and medical applications at SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing in April in Anaheim. I will chair a session on repurposing space sensors and technologies for healthcare and medical applications 12 April and moderate a panel discussion that follows on future directions for these applications.

The session, in the conference on micro- and nanotechnology sensors, systems, and applications, promises to be extremely exciting, and it brings together scientists with multidisciplinary backgrounds to discuss this topic. Among the presenters will be former astronaut and medical doctor Scott Parazynski who will give a keynote talk recounting his experience of deploying JPL’s ENose on the space shuttle with Glenn.

SPIE Fellow Shouleh Nikzad is senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech)SPIE Fellow Shouleh Nikzad is senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). She is also principal engineer, co-lead, and technical director for JPL’s Medical Engineering Forum, lead for Advanced Detectors, Systems, and Nanoscience, and the principal investigator for UV/visible/NIR photonics technologies. Her research also focuses on the development of novel imagers and instruments for astronomy, planetary, and Earth observation space applications and their spinoffs into medical applications. She has a PhD in applied physics and an MSEE from Caltech and a BSEE from University of Southern California.

The author acknowledges JPL’s principal investigators Dan Crichton (data informatics), Mark Haynes (ultrasound imaging for breast cancer), and Margie Homer (ENose) for their assistance with this article.

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