French surgeons perform first zero gravity operation

September 29, 2006

Brussels, 28 Sep 2006

Surgeons from France have used the European Space Agency's (ESA's) experimental Zero-G aircraft to carry out the first ever surgical operation conducted without gravity. The procedure took place over three hours in ESA's specially modified Airbus A300, which has been making 'parabolic' zero-gravity flights since 1996. The French team removed a benign cyst from the arm of a volunteer, extreme sportsman Philippe Sanchot, chosen because his hobbies meant he would be well suited to the acute situations on board.

The operation went 'exactly as we had expected', said chief surgeon Dominique Martin from Bordeaux University Hospital following the flight. 'All the data we collected allow us to think that operating on a human in the conditions of space would not present insurmountable problems.'

While the operation lasted only about 11 minutes, the flight took around three hours, as the special A300 can achieve zero gravity for only snatches of 22 seconds at a time.

The A300 flies a 'parabolic' trajectory, which involves gaining altitude sharply and then promptly plummeting earthwards sharply, repeating this process again and again. Those in the aeroplane will experience weightlessness as the plane reaches its highest point and begins its descent. The same procedure is used to acclimatise astronauts to the effects of zero gravity, which could otherwise cause nausea.

During this flight, the team needed to perform 31 zero-gravity parabolas in order to complete the operation. Every time the zero gravity effect ended, the team stopped, resuming when the flight again attained zero gravity. The surgeons were strapped to the side of the plane, with the patient held in a plastic tent, according to BBC reports.

'Since February we have been rehearsing this operation on the ground and in the plane. It is all crystal clear in our heads,' Martin told news agency AFP before the flight.

The team comprised three surgeons, two anaesthetists and a team of army parachutists. The surgeons used miniaturised instruments, held in place with magnets to prevent them floating around.

Anaesthetist Laurent de Coninck explained that the procedure was necessary for simply pragmatic reasons. 'Today more than 400 people have already travelled into space. The chances of injuries occurring during missions will become ever greater - and to bring a wounded person back to Earth for treatment is both risky for them and expensive,' he told AFP.

The team had made their extensive preparations thanks to a previous operation on a rat's tail artery, only 0.5mm in diameter. The zero gravity operation will lay the foundations for robots to perform similar tasks in zero gravity conditions.

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