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Is Hibernating the Best Way to Get Humans to Mars?

When it comes to a sending a manned mission to Mars, there are a lot of hurdles to overcome, not least of which is how to keep a crew alive throughout the journey. A new NASA-backed study is looking at an alternative way of getting a crew to Mars: put them in stasis.

Humans aren’t exactly well suited to spaceflight. We consume a lot of resources like food, water, and air, a fair bit of which we need to take with us going into space, which increases a mission’s launch weight. Humans also generate a lot of waste, both liquid and solid, that demands some disposal system that also adds weight to a spacecraft. And those are just the necessary biological functions; the emotional and mental needs of human astronauts is another matter altogether.

But what if humans did a lot less eating, produced less waste, and were less susceptible to emotional stresses? It’s possible by putting a crew in stasis, otherwise known as a type of deep sleep called torpor.

Torpor, is what happens to you when you get hypothermia. Your body freezes and shuts down enough to conserve energy and only support your most vital systems, reducing metabolic functions like eating and defecating. It’s possible to induce this state medically. Hospitals will sometimes put trauma patients into states of torpor to keep them alive but free of pain until they can get the procedures or surgeries they need.

The same medically induced deep sleep could be applied to astronauts en route to Mars. Coupled with intravenous feeding, they could be kept alive while consuming minimal resources.

The study is being done by SpaceWorks using the RhinoChill system. Basically, stasis would be achieved by having a crew inhale coolant through their noses. This is less dangerous than an external cooling system that can damage flesh, though it wouldn’t be very comfortable. Lowering body temperature by about 1 degree Fahrenheit per hour, the crew would be in stasis state, which is between 89 degrees and 93 degrees Fahrenheit, in about six hours.

Of course, a trip to Mars isn’t on the same scale as a medially induced sleep for a patient awaiting surgery. The best case scenario has a short transit time to Mars of about 180 days. The longest a patient has been in a torpor state is about seven days.

Still, stasis seems like a great way to get to Mars, right? Well, economically yes. Fewer consumables means a lower launch weight, a smaller spacecraft, and fewer amenities like galleys for the crew. Putting a crew in stasis could conceivably lower launch weight of a Mars mission from 400 tons to about 220 tons. To keep the mission running smoothly, SpaceWorks is considering a couple of different mission architectures that involve having astronauts go into stasis in shifts, having one crew member awake at all times to keep an eye on things.

But there are tradeoffs. Being completely inactive for 180 days, even if the spacecraft was spinning to create a gravity environment, would lead to muscle atrophy and a severely weakened crew upon Mars landing. There would probably be some psychological effect on a crew going to sleep and waking up on Mars, not to mention on the one astronaut who has to stay awake while his crewmates float around in a medically induced torpor state next to him.

Still, SpaceWorks says there are no major roadblocks to this system from a medical or psychological standpoint. So this is one creepy science fiction proposal that just might become science fact.

Feature image: SpaceWorks [via Daily Mail]

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  1. Dave says:

    They arlready did this in the classic film “Rocketman”.  The guy who doesn’t sleep will go crazy and start making bird sounds.