On their way to jump into a wormhole near Saturn, the four-member crew in the movie Interstellar go for a long nap, hibernating for years before they arrive at the unnaturally occurring anomaly. Science now shows that sleeping during long-duration space missions could be the best way to save costs, reduce the size of spacecraft by a third and keep the crew healthy.
A study led by the European Space Agency (ESA) suggests that human hibernation goes beyond the realm of science-fiction and may become a game-changing technique for space travel.
The study published in the journal Science Direct states that long-duration space missions to Mars will impose extreme stresses of physical and psychological nature on the crew, as well as significant logistical and technical challenges for life support and transportation.
Researchers have suggested building soft-shell pods with fine-tuned settings that have a quiet environment with low lights, low temperature less than 10 °C and high humidity for astronauts to hibernate. With the crew at rest for long periods, artificial intelligence will come into play during anomalies and emergencies.
WHY SLEEPING COULD BE CRUCIAL?
The European Space Agency said that when packing for a return flight to the Red Planet, space engineers account for around two years’ worth of food and water for the crew. This is around 30 kilograms per astronaut per day, and on top of that, there is the threat of radiation and mental and physiological challenges if the crew remains active.
NASA astronaut Kayla Barron reopens the door to ESA’s Columbus module, after two days and nights of the Space Station’s side modules being closed as a precautionary measure against space debris. (Photo: ESA)
Researchers focused on the biology of hibernation in reducing metabolism and hence stress, and its links to the infrastructure and life support. They found that reducing the metabolic rate of a crew en route to Mars down to 25% of the normal state would dramatically cut down the amount of supplies and habitat size, making long-duration exploration more feasible.
The European Space Agency said that the idea of putting humans into a state of hibernation, has been around in hospitals since the 1980s doctors can induce hypothermia to reduce metabolism during long and complex surgeries. However, it is not an active reduction of energy and misses most of the advantages of torpor.
TAKING CUE FROM ANIMALS
The idea takes cues from animals like bears that hibernate to survive periods of cold and food or water scarcity, reducing their heart rate, breathing, and other vital functions to a fraction of their normal life. Not only bears but tardigrades, frogs, and reptiles are also an expert at it.
Animals hibernate to survive periods of cold and food or water scarcity, reducing their heart rate, breathing and other vital functions. (File Pic)
Researchers said that bears seem to be the best role model for human hibernation in space. They have the similar body mass to us and reduce their body temperature only by a few degrees a limit considered safe for humans.
Alexander Choukér, professor of Medicine at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich explained, “Research shows that bears exit their den healthily in spring with only marginal loss of muscle mass. It only takes them about 20 days to be back to normal. This teaches us that hibernation prevents disuse atrophy of muscle and bone, and protects against tissue damage.”