Hibernation allows animals to save energy during winter when the cold temperature makes it difficult to gather food but it appears that a similar mechanism can also be used to make spaceflight cheaper and more affordable in the future.
A study backed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to find ways to dramatically reduce the cost of manned expeditions to Mars suggest putting astronauts in a form of deep sleep known as "therapeutic torpor" to slow down their metabolic function and reduce their need for food and water.
Medical torpor has been used for quite a while for critical care trauma patients but the period of stasis has so far only been limited to about a week. Traveling to Mars from Earth takes about 180 days so the U.S. space agency has collaborated with aerospace engineering firm SpaceWorks Enterprises to explore the feasibility of placing astronauts in stasis for space flights.
"Under a project being funded by the NASA NIAC, SpaceWorks is designing a torpor-inducing Mars transfer habitat and performing an architectural-level assessment to fully characterize the impact to Mars exploration," SpaceWorks said in a statement released earlier this year.
Last week, SpaceWorks Enterprises engineer Mark Schaffer presented how a stasis-reliant flight to the Red Planet would work at the 65th International Astronautical Congress in Toronto, Canada.
Schaffer said that the RhinoChill, which is currently used to induce therapeutic hypothermia and keep cardiac arrest patients in stable condition while waiting for proper treatment, will be used to induce deep sleep in astronauts and put them in a state of hibernation for up to 180 days as they take the 350 million mile journey to Mars. The system pumps coolant into the nose to gradually reduce body temperature.
The astronauts would enter stasis once the temperature reaches between 89°F and 93°F, which could take six hours to reach. The crew will be fed intravenously while in the stasis state and will be woken up by the time they arrive at their destination by stopping the flow of the coolant.
A stasis-reliant space flight appears to be economically sound as this allows the crews to live in smaller ships thanks to reduced amounts of amenities, clothing, food and water. The SpaceWorks study shows that putting astronauts in torpor can significantly reduce the mission baggage by almost half from approximately 400 tons to only about 220 tons. A spinning habitat has also been proposed to offset bone and muscle loss.
Initial results of the study's one-week tests conducted on humans are promising but further tests and studies are still needed before the system can be considered by NASA as a viable option for more affordable trip to Mars.