Scientists Are Looking Exploring Hibernation for Space Travel, Just Like 'Alien'

Tuesday, 30 October 2018 - 1:39PM
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Medical Tech
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Tuesday, 30 October 2018 - 1:39PM
Scientists Are Looking Exploring Hibernation for Space Travel, Just Like 'Alien'
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Composite from Pixabay
Everybody knows that familiar scene in sci-fi movies where the camera pans over a row of cryogenic chambers containing the crew members of a space ship, whether it's Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Avatar, or Alien. Though it's called many different things (hypersleep, cryosleep, etc.), the scientific term for this kind of long-term hibernation is 'torpor,' and a recent science symposium in New Orleans spent some time exploring how we can use it to travel to other planets.

Some of the biggest challenges for space travel are time and space. Not in the relativistic sense—the practical sense. Travelling anywhere outside our own solar system is going to take a huge amount of time, even if it's our closest neighbor, Alpha Centauri. NASA has an unmanned mission planned to head out there in 2069, but even if the spacecraft manages to reach its projected speed (which is 10% of the speed of light), the craft will still take 44 years to reach Alpha Centauri (the star system is 4.4 light years away). Apart from arriving on alien planets in their 70s, the long travel time to other planets poses another problem for astronauts: food and water. The longer the trip, the more supplies a spaceship needs to carry to sustain its crewmembers.

To deal with these problems, scientists are exploring the possibility of inducing torpor in humans, which is a low-energy state linked to sleep. Torpor lower the body's temperature and metabolism, making it able to sustain itself for long periods of time without food or water. According to Dr. Matthew Regan, of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine: "Synthetic torpor could protect astronauts from space-related health hazards and simultaneously reduce demands on spacecraft mass, volume and power capacities."

Though many animals can achieve a state of torpor, humans aren't naturally able to enter it. The key may be a part of the brainstem, called the raphe pallidus. According to Dr Matteo Cerri of the University of Bologna:"'For an animal to enter torpor, the neurons within the raphe pallidus have to be inhibited. If function in these cells is not suppressed their activity would counteract the hypothermia induced by torpor."

No one has a solution yet, but as humanity continues preparing to settle the solar system, a safe, real-life version of cryosleep will likely be essential.


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