Mars has long been a target for exploration, simply because it is the closest planet to earth. It has been studied for years through telescopes and exploratory robots that are still traversing the red planet today. With a hint of eventually sending a manned probe to Mars, NASA is testing a technology that would put astronauts to sleep for six months.
NASA began the study about 12 months ago reminding many of Sigourney Weaver’s long state of torpor in the movie Alien. Placing astronauts in a long sleeping state is, NASA feels, necessary. It would save an estimated 180 tons of supplies and equipment, which would include food and living space. It would also save the astronauts from the day-to-day living stresses encountered in a limited space environment.
The torpor state would be achieved through a procedure called therapeutic hypothermia. This is not a new technique as it is already being used in medical circles. It would, however, be required for a longer time period to facilitate the six-month voyage.
In today’s medical world the technique is used to lower a patient’s body temperature in cases of limited blood flow. For the voyage to Mars, a cool gas would be administered to the astronauts through the nasal cavity to lower their body temperature by approximately ten degrees. Additional medications would be administered to keep the body comfortable and maintain the deep sleep.
Additional research is needed since to longest induced state of torpor has been 14 days. Current studies are also aimed at determining whether the astronauts should be awoken only at the end of the journey or whether the team should sleep in different shifts. By selecting the shift method NASA could assure that one person will always be awake throughout the journey. Each astronaut would sleep for two weeks and be awake for a couple of days.
While asleep, the astronauts would be intravenously fed. The solution would contain amino acids, carbohydrates, dextrose and lipids. As a result there would only be liquid waste to dispose of through a catheter. Infectious proof IV lines are also being developed that would reduce medical risks to the astronauts.
As the spacecraft approaches Mars, the astronauts would be brought out of their deep sleep by cutting off the gas. It would probably take about two hours for the astronauts to awaken. Another few days would be required for them to fully acclimate themselves to their new environment.
Current estimates would have the astronauts explore the planet for 12 to 18 months. Including the six-month voyage there and back the entire expedition would last two to two and a half years.
While there is still some time before NASA can implement its proposed journey to the red planet, it generally takes years of planning and technical advancements before such travel becomes a reality. Current estimates have a manned Martian mission occurring by the year 2035. With rovers currently exploring the planet, the interplanetary travel technology already exists. Progress must now be made in safeguarding the astronauts throughout their journey. Placing them in a deep sleep state is one of the sciences that must be fully understood before a mission can be attempted.
By Hans Benes
Image Courtesy of NASA