European Space Agency wants to put astronauts into hibernation for space travel

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Once the preserve of science fiction, through films such as Alien (pictured) and 2001: A Space Odyssey, hibernation or ‘suspended animation’ may one day become an important enabler of deep space travel. 20th Century Fox

The European Space Agency (ESA) is daring to dream big, with the organization’s latest project to implement human hibernation for space travel. The concept of sleeping while traveling to distant planets is a mainstay of sci-fi movies like Alien, Interstellar, and Passengers.

The ESA has assembled a team to study hibernation with the aim of using it in manned space missions as part of the Future Technology Advisory Panel. The team began by looking at current attempts to create hibernation technologies and considering what the impact would be on mission design. As a reference point, they considered a theoretical mission that would send six people to Mars and back within five years.

“We worked on adjusting the architecture of the spacecraft, its logistics, protection against radiation, power consumption and overall mission design,” Robin Biesbroek of the ESA’s Concurrent Design Facility said in a statement. “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.”

According to the team’s research, the use of hibernation could reduce the total mass of a spacecraft by one third, as well as a one-third reduction in the requirements for consumables like food and water. Instead of crew quarters, each astronaut would have a soft pod that would double as a cabin while they were awake. The astronauts would be administered a drug to induce hibernation, then their pods would be darkened and their temperature reduced for several months.

The big advantage of hibernation is that it would enable astronauts to travel on much longer space missions. If a hibernation state could be achieved in which an astronaut’s metabolic rate was reduced by around three-quarters, which is what happens in hibernating animals such as bears, then manned space missions could reach much further from our planet as the requirements for food, water, and oxygen would be reduced.

Despite the fact that humans clearly don’t hibernate, scientists say that the idea of putting people into a hibernation-like state is not as far-fetched as it sounds. “The basic idea of putting astronauts into long-duration hibernation is actually not so crazy,” Jennifer Ngo-Anh, leader of the ESA’s SciSpacE team, said in the same statement. “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 better shape than they otherwise would be.

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

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