Space

ESA studies impact of hibernating astronauts on space missions

ESA studies impact of hibernat...
Still the preserve of science fiction, through films such as Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey, hibernation or "suspended animation" may one day become an important enabler of deep space travel
Still the preserve of science fiction, through films such as Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey, hibernation or "suspended animation" may one day become an important enabler of deep space travel
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Still the preserve of science fiction, through films such as Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey, hibernation or "suspended animation" may one day become an important enabler of deep space travel
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Still the preserve of science fiction, through films such as Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey, hibernation or "suspended animation" may one day become an important enabler of deep space travel
ESA’s Concurrent Design Facility
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ESA’s Concurrent Design Facility
Hibernation and torpor study logo
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Hibernation and torpor study logo
Functional areas of the hibernation module: (1) private crew quarters, (2) exercise, (3) hygiene and waste, (4) dining and wardroom, (5) workstation, (6) galley and food, (7) medical supplies, (8) life support systems and stowage, (9) operational and maintenance supplies
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Functional areas of the hibernation module: (1) private crew quarters, (2) exercise, (3) hygiene and waste, (4) dining and wardroom, (5) workstation, (6) galley and food, (7) medical supplies, (8) life support systems and stowage, (9) operational and maintenance supplies
A cross-section through the hibernation module showing the individual quarters that would double as hibernation pods during the cruise phase
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A cross-section through the hibernation module showing the individual quarters that would double as hibernation pods during the cruise phase
Standard habitat module compared to a hibernation module
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Standard habitat module compared to a hibernation module

Looking forward to the first manned Mars mission, ESA is delving into how astronaut hibernation would affect space missions. Based on sending six humans on a five-year mission to the Red Planet, the study suggests that using hibernation would allow the mass of the spacecraft to be reduced by a third, and the amount of consumables cut by roughly the same amount.

The idea of astronauts sleeping their way through a deep-space mission lasting months or years has been a staple plot device of science fiction since at least the 1930s and has featured in many movies as a way to speed up the story. Despite the chance of waking up to find one's self on a planet run by apes, it's an idea that is very attractive to real-life mission planners as a way to both reduce the supplies needed for lengthy missions and to keep the crew from going crazy.

The technology to actually make humans hibernate like bears or other mammals is still in its infancy, but that hasn't stopped ESA from looking at how hibernation could impact spacecraft designs and missions in general. Originally, studied as part of the space agency's Basic Activities research, hibernation is regarded as a key enabling technology and now ESA's Concurrent Design Facility (CDF), along with scientists from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and the University of Goethe, Frankfurt, are looking at the advantages that sleeping astronauts might bring to a Mars mission.

Standard habitat module compared to a hibernation module
Standard habitat module compared to a hibernation module

"We worked on adjusting the architecture of the spacecraft, its logistics, protection against radiation, power consumption and overall mission design," says Robin Biesbroek of the CDF. "We looked at how an astronaut team could be best put into hibernation, what to do in case of emergencies, how to handle human safety and even what impact hibernation would have on the psychology of the team. Finally, we created an initial sketch of the habitat architecture and created a roadmap to achieve a validated approach to hibernate humans to Mars within 20 years."

Hibernation would involve the astronauts bulking up like bears in the autumn in the run-up to the mission before being placed into individual sleeping pods on the craft that would double as living quarters after awakening. A still-hypothetical drug would induce the same state of torpor that many mammals enter naturally to sleep through winter and, like the animals, the astronauts would live off their extra body fat.

Meanwhile, the soft-shell pods would maintain a dark, cool environment to keep the crew in hibernation for the 180-day passage to and from Mars, followed by a 21-day recuperation phase. Though ESA says that the astronauts wouldn't experience bone or muscle loss, there would be a danger from cosmic radiation, so the quarters would need shielding from water tanks or other materials, but hibernation itself may provide some enhanced radiation protection in itself as evidenced by existing research.

A cross-section through the hibernation module showing the individual quarters that would double as hibernation pods during the cruise phase
A cross-section through the hibernation module showing the individual quarters that would double as hibernation pods during the cruise phase

In addition, while the crew is asleep, the craft would need a Hal 9000-like artificial intelligence to run the systems and conduct maintenance operations, so missions would need to be planned accordingly, with a focus on autonomous operations until crew members are revived.

"For a while now, hibernation has been proposed as a game-changing tool for human space travel," says SciSpacE Team Leader Jennifer Ngo-Anh. "If we were able to reduce an astronaut’s basic metabolic rate by 75 percent – similar to what we can observe in nature with large hibernating animals such as certain bears – we could end up with substantial mass and cost savings, making long-duration exploration missions more feasible.

"And the basic idea of putting astronauts into long-duration hibernation is actually not so crazy: a broadly comparable method has been tested and applied as therapy in critical care trauma patients and those due to undergo major surgeries for more than two decades. Most major medical centers have protocols for inducing hypothermia in patients to reduce their metabolism to basically gain time, keeping patients in a better shape than they otherwise would be.

"We aim to build on this in future, by researching the brain pathways that are activated or blocked during initiation of hibernation, starting with animals and proceeding to people."

Source: ESA

3 comments
buzzclick
We're used to hearing about equipment and hardware for space exploration, and it's about time that hibernation is discussed seriously. Just about all the conditions a traveler would go through can be replicated here on terra firma, so inducing torpor in mice and chimps will probably be preliminary steps, with waking done on a measured basis to explore the effects in real time. Sooner or later, humans will have to be the test subjects, and the psychological challenges investigated. 180 days or more in an induced coma state is not something we're built for. The spacecraft's AI computer system is crucial to keep things humming along no matter what the surprise. It's fascinating to see sci-fi becoming reality.
neoneuron
Well if vessel springs a leak, and the oxygen runs out, it will be a quiet death.
Victor-in-A2
Still the mission is dominated by life support systems- just keeping people alive in adverse conditions will be the focus- the rest of the mission will have little to do with planetary science that isn't already being done by remote technologies. The desire to put just a few people on Mars is a fallacy. If we can't make Earth a stable place for humans, having Mars means nothing. The cost is too high. Send the robots and check back in a generation.