Will astronauts hibernate on the way to Mars?

By | May 10, 2023

The year is 2039 and you are an astronaut on your way to Mars. You’re only three months into your eight-month journey, and already your body is dealing with an avalanche of radiation from space. In zero gravity, your bones and muscles are at risk of wearing out. Don’t worry though, as you are about to enter your special chamber. Nestled inside, you’ll sleep happily for days until you arrive refreshed and refreshed at your destination.

In science fiction books and movies we have seen it over and over again. Some scientists believe that human hibernation in the vastness of space could one day be possible. If it were, it would be a boon for space exploration. A single astronaut consumes around 30 kg of food and water per day. Multiply that by the roughly 16 months it would take to travel to Mars and back, and that adds up to a pretty heavy spacecraft for all that life support.

Hibernating astronauts, on the other hand, would not eat or drink much and would consume minimal oxygen. Thus, hibernation could save enormous amounts of money, reducing the amount of food cargo required by 75% and the size of the required spacecraft by up to a third.

“There is uncertainty about how people will react to the effect of ceasing to see Earth as a nearby planet outside the window and only seeing darkness outside,” Leopold Summerer, head of the Advanced Concepts group at the Space Agency, told the BBC. European. . It is a group that monitors new space technologies. “The psychological stress it can cause is a bit unknown,” he adds.

The health benefits

However, there would also be health benefits to hibernation. Without the force of gravity, astronauts in space experience muscle atrophy and loss of bone density. Even on the International Space Station, where high-tech fitness equipment is available 24/7 and strict exercise protocols are followed, astronauts lose up to 20% of their muscle mass. Loss of muscle mass would be an even bigger problem on missions to Mars, since there would be no support crews waiting after landing on the Red Planet.

Therefore, hibernation could protect against some of these risks. Hibernating animals enter a special state called visceration, in which their metabolism slows and their heart rate, respiration, and body temperature drop. Even the cells that make up the animal’s body stop dividing and die. Thus, they conserve energy in times of food scarcity. However, this condition also appears to protect against some of the ill effects of space travel.

For example, squirrels have shown resistance to high levels of radiation during hibernation, possibly because hibernating cells reproduce at much lower rates and are therefore naturally less susceptible to radiation damage. Going into a state of hibernation also appears to help bears and squirrels maintain their bone structure and muscle tone. Despite hibernating for up to six months at a time, black bears emerge in the spring with minimal muscle loss and are back to normal within 20 days. In fact, awake bears show surprisingly high levels of fitness.

“If you were bedridden for several months, you would lose a lot of muscle tissue during that time,” Jürgen Breiter Hahn, a professor of neuroscience and cell biology at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, told the BBC. He is a member of ESA’s Hibernation Research Group, which conducts research on human hibernation for long-distance spaceflight to Mars. “This intense tissue loss over long periods of disuse is almost completely avoided during turbulence, which means that astronauts coming to Mars should be in good shape and not need a lot of time to recover.”

Is hibernation possible in humans?

But enough of benefits. The big question is another? Is it possible to happen? The answer, according to the BBC, is… maybe. Hibernating animals are distributed throughout the tree of life, including insects, amphibians, and many mammals. Studies have also shown that scientists can use drugs to induce a similar state in certain animals, such as rats, that don’t normally hibernate. The drugs work on an area of ​​the brain called the hypothalamus, which is involved in regulating body temperature and heart rate.

Cooling the body could also induce a kind of hibernation state. In the 1990s, researchers at the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research at the University of Pittsburgh demonstrated that rapid cooling of the circulatory system of dogs in cardiac arrest led them to a state of motor arrest.

A similar procedure, known as therapeutic hypothermia, is already used in some hospitals to treat patients in cardiac arrest or with traumatic brain injuries. Cooling the body to around 32-34C is believed to reduce damage to the brain and other vital organs. This makes sense, since our body’s cells require a constant supply of oxygen to meet their metabolic demands. Under normal conditions, the heart pumps this oxygen throughout our body. But in trauma patients, blood loss causes cells to starve for oxygen and quickly die. Cooling the body by a few degrees reduces the body’s demand for energy and oxygen, giving doctors a significant amount of time.

SpaceWorks Enterprises, an Atlanta, Georgia-based aerospace engineering firm, believes that therapeutic hypothermia could also be a good way to put space travelers in a similar state. The company has received funding from NASA to implement their idea, which involves hibernating for a few weeks before being active for a few days, and then hibernating again. This could be done on a rotating basis so that there is always a crew member on alert, dealing with safety issues or any emergencies that may arise.

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