NASA astronauts could sleep for upto 6 months or more on their journey to the Mars planet.
Existing medical techniques are laying the foundations for an ambitious research project to send astronauts into a deep sleep on a six-month journey to Mars, according to the engineer leading the study.
“There’s technology being used in the medical community that could support this – there’s a wealth of data out there to support it,” John Bradford, president of Atlanta-based SpaceWorks, quoted. “It’s a big step, but it could be adopted for space flight.”
The NASA-funded study began 12 months ago, and conjures up images of science fiction – putting astronauts into a deep sleep, or torpor, during the long six-month journey to Mars.
“I don’t think that we could go to Mars without something like this technology,” Bradford said. Putting the crew into a deep sleep, he explained, would significantly reduce the amount of supplies and infrastructure needed to support the long space journey, from food to onboard living space.
The study predicts that putting a spacecraft’s crew into torpor, or stasis state, would cut the mission requirements from 400 tons to 220 tons of equipment and supplies.
Bradford stated that the torpor could be achieved by a technique called therapeutic hypothermia, which is already used in hospitals, albeit for a much shorter time period.
Therapeutic, or protective, hypothermia lowers a patient’s body temperature to reduce the risk of tissue injury following, say, a cardiac arrest when blood flow is limited.
In the thermal management system envisaged by SpaceWorks, a tube inserted into an astronaut’s nasal cavity will emit a cooled gas, lowering their temperature by about 10 degrees. Low-dose drugs will also be administered to suppress their shiver reflex and ease their passage into a deep sleep.
“Other than the duration, the procedural aspects of this are pretty benign,” said Bradford.
Technologies are already commercially available in this area, such as the RhinoChill IntraNasal cooling system, which is used to induce therapeutic hypothermia after cardiac arrest.
However, SpaceWorks acknowledges that there’s a lot more research needed before someone is placed in a six-month sleep. Up to now, the longest torpor induced by therapeutic hypothermia is 14 days, according to Bradford.
The engineer said that, while the research aims to wake astronauts just once, at the end of their journey, other sleep durations may be used. The crew, he explained, could sleep in shifts, with each astronaut in torpor for about two weeks and then conscious for two days, ensuring that one crew member is always awake during the mission.
While in stasis state, astronauts would be fed intravenously with an aqueous solution of carbohydrates, amino acids, dextrose, and lipids, according to Bradford. “They would not have any solid waste – it would be strictly urine,” he said, noting that a catheter would be used to dispose of the liquid.