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An artist’s rendering of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft performing a “touch-and-go” to capture a sample from the surface of the asteroid Bennu. 

With a major research university right in our backyard, a strong military presence and innovative companies throughout the metro region, there’s often a plethora of interesting science and technology news to be found in Southern Arizona. Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting recent developments.


Space Gift. The University of Arizona has received gifts of $1.5 million and $500,000 to advance their space initiatives, which will be used on the OSIRIS-REx mission and Giant Magellan Telescope. The larger donation will be used to purchase a secondary ion mass spectrometer, which can analyze surfaces by projecting an ion beam and then collecting and analyzing the ejected secondary ions. (Ions are particles such as an atom or molecule that have a net electric charge due to losing or gaining an electron.) The secondary ion mass spectrometer will be used to analyze samples returned from the OSIRIS-REx mission, a NASA mission led by UA that, if successful, will be the first American space mission to return a sample from the surface of an asteroid. In 2020, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully captured a sample of rocks and dust from the asteroid Bennu, and is currently making the multi-million-mile journey back to Earth. The spacecraft is expected to return in September 2023. A primary goal of analyzing the samples will be to answer questions about the early solar system, such as the origin of water on our planet and the formation of terrestrial bodies. The secondary ion mass spectrometer allows investigation on the nanometer scale, and can analyze the recovered samples without destroying them. Data collected from mass spectrometry includes information like the chemical composition of materials. The $500,000 gift will be used to further UA’s involvement in the Giant Magellan Telescope project, a large telescope currently under production that will be housed in Chile’s Atacama Desert and is expected to be 10 times as strong as the Hubble Space Telescope. Mirrors for the telescope are being constructed at UA’s Steward Observatory Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab. The donor has asked to remain anonymous.

“I am immensely grateful for this donor’s vision and support of space science exploration at the University of Arizona,” said UA president Robert C. Robbins in a prepared statement. “One of the most thrilling aspects of both of these projects is realizing how many members of our faculty and staff, as well as our students, are contributing to their success. It is incredible to have a graduate continue engaging with the university and supporting these missions.”

Robotic Surgery. Banner – University Medicine Tucson is now offering “port robotic partial nephrectomies,” a type of robot-assisted kidney cancer surgery that can treat complex kidney cancers through one small incision. The surgery utilizes the da Vinci SP Single Port Surgical System, which has three, multi-jointed, wristed instruments and an HD camera, all of which emerge from a small tube to center around the surgery area. According to Intuitive, the company behind the robot, the system has 360-degrees of anatomical access and surgeons control the fully articulating instruments and camera. The surgery robot will be used with Dr. Benjamin Lee, a leading authority on robotic treatment of renal cell carcinoma. According to Lee, the goal of the surgery is to remove the kidney cancer, while preserving 50-75% of the remaining kidney, which decreases the risk of renal failure. Because of the small incision required, surgeries moving forward are expected to involve less pain and scarring, have a quicker recovery time, and reduce the need for dialysis post-surgery. The previous technology, the da Vinci Xi robot, took up to six incisions to dock the robotic arms and complete the kidney surgery. According to Lee, in the past, the options were open surgery through a foot-long incision that often required removing a rib. Previous approaches required four-to-five-month expected recovery time and a four-to-five-day hospital stay. Now, that time has been reduced to a two-to-three-week recovery time and an overnight stay.