Space trips away from our planet would require months or years of travel in the vacuum space. And for this, it is extremely essential to ensure the health of the travelling crew. Maintaining state-of-the-art life support systems can be expensive, and unreliable despite years of research. If space travelling crews could be induced to hibernation during space travel, many challenges could become easier to solve.
How would it work?
Hibernation is a type of state of physical and mental inactivity or reduced metabolism. It is caused when the body temperature is greatly below normal. However, unlike cryogenics, the body does not freeze. For instance, a 10 degree drop in your body temperature reduces the body metabolism by 50-70%.
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This is done artificially. Body temperature is lowered to 32 degree Celsius (core temperature), followed by sedation to stop the natural defense mechanism of the body to shiver against the cold. This lowered temperature sets the body to an unconscious state. This ensures a slow metabolic rate and reduces the risk of any muscle injuries.
How does hibernation solve the problems of deep-space travel?
If dormant astronauts were immobilized into specialized hibernation capsules, they wouldn’t require a pressurized living area or an artificial gravity for survival. In their hibernated state, they can be monitored automatically by their spaceship’s computer (which would have to be sufficiently advanced). They could even be fed intravenously. Obviously this will save plenty of resources in the long run.
One of the biggest concerns of deep space travel is radiation. It would be a lot more feasible to provide heavy radiation shielding to hibernating capsules instead of the large living areas in the spaceships. This can save a lot fuel as well as weight.
The psychological impact of long duration space trips cannot be ignored as well, even though we haven’t had to grapple with them as of yet. It will mentally strenuous for human beings to remain active throughout a long voyage isolated. Hibernation can work out to be an ideal solution to not only provide enough rest but also can avoid muscle loss during the sleep.
In all, a hibernating crew could stay alive throughout the journey requiring little food, less living space, eradicating boredom and potentially reducing all costs of the travel.
Would human hibernation actually be possible?
According to studies conducted so far, patients have been kept in hibernation only for a few days. The longest that a person has been kept in this state is for 14 days in China. This was again, for a study. He did not seem to be reeling under any negative impact.
Space travels of course, will require hibernation on a much larger scale. And they may not include just one long hibernation session. Instead, after two weeks of hibernation, crew members could be resuscitated, allowed to recover for a few days, and then sent back into hibernation.
In most sci fi movies, a computer monitors and functions the working of the ship. But this may not be the best idea in real life. At least one person may be required to stay awake to maintain critical functions – and this role could be rotated across the crew.
The primary objective of human hibernation during deep space travel would be to reduce investments in living quarters, food, and accommodation. Resources can then be diverted to other critical areas of research – such as nuclear propulsion for longer duration travel.
Smaller spaceships would make exploring the space a lot more cheaper. This would in turn bring us closer to the inter-planetary expeditions.