To tackle this space sleep conundrum, let’s start with the basic, without the assistance of sedatives or fancy chambers, we have to know how long humans can sleep on our own. Typically we only sleep about eight hours per night and though that can vary, it’s unusual for healthy adults to regularly sleep over 10 hours. But in the 1960s two volunteers put sleep duration to the test. They were monitored as they lived, isolated, underground for several months. In the absence of daylight, their sleep cycles got real crazy. One guy fell asleep for 30 hours and woke up thinking it was just a short nap! 30 hours!
In following years researchers did more organized, controlled studies and they found that when isolated from light and other external markers of time, it’s not that uncommon for us to fall into longer sleep cycles. All of this could be a great natural starting point for hacking our sleep to fit our space travel need. But it won’t get us all the way there since extended sleep periods are often followed by extended waking periods. So we are gonna need something a little more sophisticated than a dark room to get us into Deep Space.
Luckily for future Mark Watney out there, there are lots of scientists trying to figure this out. One of the most exciting projects is in the work at a company called SpaceWorks Enterprises and yes, that is the name of a real company that actually exists. They have been working with NASA to develop a stasis chamber that could keep astronauts asleep for 2 weeks at a time and possibly longer. Now, I know what you are thinking, two weeks that’s not enough to get me to Mars and you are right. But SpaceWorks has a plan for that they suggest stacking these shorter hibernation periods back to back with a couple of days in between to walk around and stretch out. The crew can rotate waking and sleeping shifts and Voila. You will be in deep space before you know it.
First, this design isn’t for an individual sleep pod, but a shared sleeping chamber. The chamber works by lowering a group of astronaut’s body temperatures to 32 degrees Celsius, then it sedates them to suppress the body’s reactions to the cold. The low temperature would put their bodies into a mild hypothermia, slowing down your metabolic rate and preventing injury from lack of oxygen. Robotic arms will check up on the astronauts while they slumber and any bodily waste will be.. well, let’s just say there are catheters involved. Sounds like hypersleep to me.
Aside from greatly reducing the necessary food and water for the mission these stasis chambers could also have some other major benefits, like requiring a smaller area to be thoroughly protected from radiation. The researchers also want to equip the chambers with artificial gravity which could prevent a lot of the negative health effects associated with long-term space travel.
But, Danger Alert!, don’t try taking one of these bad boys to Proxima Centauri. We still have not figured out how to slow down ageing, so even though you would not have to be entertained and fed on the 81,000-year journey, you would still be very Dead by the time you get there. Sadly, these don’t exist yet, so if we send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s they probably just have to sleep like normal humans.
In the meantime as a person who enjoys a good cold nap, I hope they make an earth version of this soon.
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