Did you think that stasis only existed in the movies? Well, that may no longer be the case. NASA is exploring deep sleep options for future manned missions to Mars
We have spent years watching science fiction films and reading sci-fi books that feature characters entering a “sleep state” as they travel long distances in space, waking only after they reach their destination. But did we ever think that one day it would be a reality? Well, those guys at NASA sure did.
In June 2013, NASA announced that they would launch a study called “Torpor Inducing Transfer Habitat For Human Stasis To Mars.” The study is being conducted by SpaceWorks Enterprises, a design firm focusing on next-generation space exploration systems and backed by NASA.
“Therapeutic torpor has been around in theory since the 1980s and really since 2003 has been a staple for critical care trauma patients in hospitals,” aerospace engineer Mark Schaffer, with SpaceWorks Enterprises in Atlanta, said at the International Astronomical Congress in Toronto last week. “Protocols exist in most major medical centers for inducing therapeutic hypothermia on patients to essentially keep them alive until they can get the kind of treatment that they need.”
Stasis can be safely induced by lowering core body temperature one degree per hour for six hours. This essentially creates a hypothermic state—but a safe one. Until now, it has been possible to keep a person in deep sleep, or torpor, for a maximum of about seven days. The goal, however, is a much longer duration.
“For human Mars missions, we need to push that to 90 days, 180 days. Those are the types of mission flight times we’re talking about,” Schaffer said.
Cutting costs by cutting time
If SpaceWorks can achieve their goal of getting deep sleep duration for astronauts to 90 or 180 days, NASA will be able to significantly reduce the size of the crew’s in-space habitat. A ship that currently needs to have a mass of 20-50 mt could be reduced to only 5-7 mt, for a crew of 4-6. The need for extensive amounts of exercise or storage room for food and water would be greatly diminished.
Reducing the size of the vessel required for a manned mission to Mars would be a cost effective move for NASA. If the crew spends the duration of their travel time in stasis, it would cut the baseline mission requirements from about 400 tons to about 220 tons.
“That’s more than one heavy-lift launch vehicle,” Schaffer said.
Though the study proves promising, NASA and SpaceWorks are still trying to address a few logistical concerns. Along with the need to extend the torpor sleep beyond one week, they will have to figure out how to reduce muscle loss and keep the crew’s bodies healthy during their journey. While in an induced deep sleep, the astronauts on the mission would be fed intravenously with a liquid solution that can supply all the hydration, nutrients, and amino acids that the body needs to sustain itself. This practice is commonly used for cancer patients in medical settings, where an individual can receive treatment like this for as long as one or two years.
Another concern is preventing muscle atrophy and bone degeneration. This issue is already present during space missions where the crew is not in some type of deep sleep, and becomes more dangerous when adding stasis, or torpor, to the equation.
NASA plans to explore options such as artificially-induced gravity, which would keep a constant exercise-type pressure on the body’s muscles, and electrical stimulus, which would trigger muscles to react and flex periodically, therefore maintaining muscle mass.
Despite the tough work ahead, NASA and SpaceWorks remain confident about the future of spaceflight and aim to bring astronauts to Mars sooner than we thought.
Until then, here’s a dreamy picture of Mars.