To dramatically cut the cost of its future manned missions to Mars, NASA is testing a sci-fi sounding technique of placing the crew in stasis. The deep sleep conditions would also reduce psychological challenges for the astronauts during the 180-day trip.
Adopting a technique commonly used in hospitals to bring about stasis, or sleep, in patients undergoing critical care, NASA partnered with Spaceworks, an aerospace engineering firm, to research how inducing hibernation could benefit a crew traveling for six months to Mars.
To bring about stasis astronauts would have their body temperature lowered to around 89-93 degrees Fahrenheit (31.6 – 33.9 Celsius) resulting in significant drop of the heart and respiration rates. To do so a tube will be inserted in their nose which releases a cooling agent while the sleeping crew member is fed through an intravenous tube. The crew would be kept in that condition for the entire trip or rotated in and out of deep sleep in shifts.
Awakening the astronaut would be done by either stopping the flow of the cooling agent, or by using warming pads to speed up the process, according to NASA. “A means for full cryo-preservation and restoration remains a long way off still,” NASA added in a statement.
Exploring these techniques, NASA funded one week of tests on humans, and the results were promising. The agency says more research is needed, but if stasis proves feasible, it could reduce the overall mass of a Mars flight from 400 to 220 tons since it will reduce amounts of food, water and workout gear to bring a crew safely there and back.
Therapeutic torpor has evolved from a theory into a common tool for treating critical care trauma patients in hospitals over the past decades, Mark Schaffer, aerospace engineer for SpaceWorks Enterprises said at the International Astronomical Congress in Toronto last week.
“We haven’t had the need to keep someone in (hibernation) for longer than seven days,” Schaffer said cited by Discovery. “For human Mars missions, we need to push that to 90 days, 180 days. Those are the types of mission flight times we’re talking about.”
Scientists have been studying torpor/hibernation in Black Bears, Arctic Ground Squirrel and Dwarf Lemur to understand the process that the animal undergoes and how those processes change on waking. These animals can typically hibernate from three to six months.
According to Spaceworks hibernation would cut the prohibitive expenses of maintaining a crew on its trip to Mars by reducing food needs, the need for pressurized volume for living quarters, cut out facilities like a food galley and exercise equipment, and minimize psychological challenges for the crew.