Where once X-ray telescope technology probed the farthest reaches of the universe, it now will be utilized to examine objects much, much closer--and microscopic--on Earth.

Working with the University of Tokyo and Keio University, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to develop a microscope to detect difficult-to-find cancer cells based on technology used for the X-ray astronomy satellite Hitomi.

“It is extremely rare that space observation technology, a form of fundamental science, is connected with clinical medicine,” said Saku Tsuneta, director-general of JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science. “We expect the project will produce an epoch-making achievement.”

The project is aimed at creating a medical microscope 50 times more precise than existing equipment to identify cancer stem cells in tumors. The scientists intend to develop a prototype within two to three years.

While cancer stem cells are said to be associated with the generation of tumors, it is difficult to tell them apart from other cells in tumors. With existing microscopes, that type of cell cannot be examined in bodies of living creatures.

A high-precision X-ray microscope needs to be used to locate cancer stem cells in animals’ bodies after radioisotopes, combined with chemical compounds that can attach themselves only to cancer stem cells, are produced.

The development of the telescope for Hitomi, designed to observe X-rays from black holes and elsewhere, took 10 years. The technology used for the telescope will enable objects measuring just 100 micrometers to be examined, according to JAXA officials.

Although Hitomi was launched in February 2016 to help scientists ascertain how the universe developed, the satellite broke into pieces due to malfunctioning of the position control system and other problems. Its operations were suspended after only about two months.