The Darwin space telescope

Scrapped space project helps save patients' eyesight

Technology from a scrapped planet-hunting telescope is helping eye surgeons save patients' sight.

The Darwin mission was an ambitious European Space Agency (ESA) project that envisaged a constellation of free-flying telescopes searching for Earth-like planets, but it never progressed beyond the planning stage.

Now doctors in the Netherlands have repurposed cutting-edge technology originally developed for these advanced orbiting observatories to keep their surgical microscope steady.

A device called Hummingbird was developed to test the telescope in almost totally vibration-free conditions and the same technology is now being used by eye surgeons at Maastricht University Medical Centre.

"When you're working within less than one millimetre a shaky microscope is not an option," said Professor Carroll Webers, head of the university's eye clinic.

"If a patient has retinal detachment, we must operate within a day or two to stop them going blind. The retina is barely half a millimetre thick and sometimes we have to peel back an 'epiretinal membrane', which is 10 times thinner.

"It's impossible to perform this kind of delicate surgery with a wobbling image."

Hummingbird cancels out almost imperceptible vibrations by sensing minute movement and using sensitive actuators to push the microscope in the opposite direction.

In this way, it is able to cancel out movements 100 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. The effect is said to be similar to standing on a blustery cliff and being prevented from swaying by someone pushing you against the wind.

Uniquely, Hummingbird counters vibrations in six directions – up/down, forwards/backwards, left/right, roll, pitch and yaw.

"Hummingbird has changed our professional lives," Webers added. "Our patients can feel totally safe and at last we get to use our beautiful new building and operating theatre to the full."

Len van der Wal, from the Dutch TNA research organisation that developed the technology, said: "Looking at something created for space and wondering where this could land on Earth is a creative process. It's heartening that transferring our know-how into a non-space world is helping people to see."

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