Technology, which will help people to get to Mars and beyond is already being created. Cryosleep will let us fly to deep space objects without aging a day.
There is defined term “torpor”, which means temporary slowdown or stoppage of living processes. And range of scientists and engineers under the aegis of NASA deal with torpor issue. As a part of a project on putting astronauts into torpor, new more compact and less expensive ships for the space exploration may be created. But at the same time torpor will come in useful on Earth too.
Torpor and hibernation
In space, especially during long-term being in interplanetary expeditions, human body is threatened by range of problems, such as loss of bone density and muscle mass. At the same time, even while being in torpor, astronaut shall eat (and if the flights last long, “duffel bag” for every space traveler may be quite weighty). Until now, the delivery of cargo to space remains incredibly costly affair because each extra kilogram of spaceship weight increases the costs for fuel (which is also the cargo). Quite a different story when the astronaut is in the state, when his metabolic activity is significantly decreased, almost stopped – in this case he needs neither place for living, nor food.
Matteo Cerri, physiologist at the University of Bologna in Italy, believes that the key advantage of torpor is as follows: “The core characteristic of hibernation is that you suddenly stop consuming energy.” This occurs taking into consideration that during hibernation the heart of living organism beats more slowly, body temperature drops, breathing, cell replication, and brain activity slow.
But humans can’t hibernate on a random basis, but according to John Bradford, president and COO of SpaceWorks Enterprises, scientist are just trying to make people closer to hibernation state or create enabling environment for this. SpaceWorks Enterprises is engaged in aerospace industry and working with the NASA Innovative Advance Concepts (NIAC) Program, therefore its immediate interest is to reach significant results in this direction.
Jason Derleth, program executive of NIAC, notes that hibernation has yet another important aspect. Thus, long-term flights mean that astronauts will stay for a long time in extremely limited place with the same persons, which is hard enough from the psychological point of view. Sometimes, like during long airplane flights, it’s much more convenient just to have a deep profound sleep. Moreover, Derleth believes that torpor may also be quite congenial to health, preventing muscle atrophy or bone degeneration, simultaneously reducing the negative effect of space radiation on the human body. But, on the other hand, decelerated metabolism also means a reduced possibility of restoring the body…
“Emergency aid” for space travelers
The European Space Agency is trying to send gnawing animals into the torpor, particularly rats that do not normally hibernate. With the help of Matteo Cerri and his colleagues, new mechanism was developed, which lies in the fact that that torpor is triggered by drug-induced shut off a brain area that controls metabolism.
Meanwhile, SpaceWorks with its team of engineers is explicitly engaged in spacecraft designing, in which hibernation units will be placed. SpaceWorks’ ideas are based on therapeutic hypothermia, used by the emergency doctors to prevent brain damage during cardiac arrest by cooling the body. It shall be noted that it’s unclear whether it causes any side effects because the hypothermia usually lasts several days, but not months, and it was only applied to people who are knowingly ill or injured.
It is expected that to enter torpor space-explorers would only need to take sedative, following which owing to air cooling the body temperature will be reduced to -10°F. Moreover, each crew member will be able to enter this state in his own pod (like it is shown in science fiction movies). Alternative choice suggests that some crewmembers may be placed in torpor module, while other crewmembers will keep the watch in other parts of the spaceship.
John Bradford recalls: even in the state of such deep “sleep”, astronauts will still need food. Bears, for instance, may accumulate extra dozens of kilograms before winter slumber, to use the accumulated resource during the inactivity period, but person will probably be intravenously administered with nutritional substances.
“Defrostation” process may be quite complicated, when various body organs, while awakening from torpor, will require more and more energy. Moreover, entry of sufficient amount of blood and oxygen to some of them – for instance, heart or brain of the human – are of critical importance. It is obvious that torpor may be accompanied by such side effects as blood clots, infections (and the human body will not be able to cope with them), etc. And no one knows what influence this such long term stay in low metabolism state will have on memory, well-being, cognitive abilities. These questions require substantive study.
How soon to the Mars?
It is important to realize that torpor – is not a total freezing of the body with the conservation effect. Indeed, animals that go into winter slumber live longer compared to other similar species that do not live in the hibernation state during certain periods of their life. Therefore, it may be expected that astronauts staying in torpor will also grow old more slowly, but not so much as to be able to conduct flights lasting 100 years. Freezing with the replacement of blood with “antifreeze” may be an alternative to this, which will help to avoid damaging of body cells, but such cryo-freezing is still irreversible.
In its turn, torpor may be used not in space flights only, but on the Earth as well, for instance in the battlefield medicine, when the life of wounded soldiers may be saved, having put him into torpor. And if torpor or hypothermia protect the body cells from radiation damage, then in this state persons ill with cancer may be treated in an effective way because ray treatment of tumorous tissues may be performed with more intensive care, saving the patient’s life.
According to John Bradford, technologies for the efficient use of torpor will be ready by the early 2030s, and in the future, in view of Dr. Derleth, such decisions will open up the possibility of traveling out to space depths – to Mars and even deeper.