“HIBERNATING” astronauts could be sent further into space than mankind has ever ventured before within a matter of years, claims a scientist who helps run the International Space Station.
Leopold Summerer, also head of the advanced concepts team at the European Space Agency, said scientists were actively studying how some animal species slow their bodies down to hibernate to see if it is possible for humans to do the same.
Mr Summerer is convinced that it could be possible to place humans in a sleep-like state “within our lifetimes” and the science fiction concept of cryogenic sleep could become a reality.
If possible, it could potentially allow for deep space travel – something which has so far eluded all space programmes on Earth.
Researchers are looking at various techniques used by animals to lower their body temperature before hibernation.
Mr Summerer said tests were now underway to see if it is possible to drop their body temperatures and keep astronauts in a sleep-like state for days or weeks, without harming them.
He told the Washington Post: “It doesn’t mean we will have hibernating astronauts anytime soon, but we are learning from nature how to understand some of the things that happen to animals during hibernation, such as preventing bone loss or preventing muscle loss.
“This is already something that would be a great benefit for long-distance space flight.”
NASA has been investing millions of dollars on the impact of long-term periods spent in space on the human body.
This has included an experiment using identical twin brothers Scott and Mark Kelly, both 50.
Scott is spending a year on the International Space Station – double the maximum usual stay – while Mark remains on earth.
Their physical make-up will be compared in 10 investigations after the year period to see if there have been any major changes to Scott’s mind or body.
NASA last year funded a study into astronaut hibernation as it believes putting a space crew to sleep could minimise some of the psychological effects of space travel.
Meanwhile other benefits would be the reduction in food and water required onboard, plus less space needed for exercise and entertainment and less human and other waste.
Experimental medical therapy, including a system called “theraputic hypothermia” – which lowers a person’s body temperature over several days in order to treat some brain injuries, has already been tested.
Romergryko Geocadin, Hopkins professor of neurology and anaesthesiology, has used ice packs, caps, cooling IV fluids and liquid-filled blankets to bring a patient’s temperature down from 36.6 degrees Celsius to below 33 degrees Celsius for as long as three days, but insists to do it any longer would be dangerous.
Some skeptics do not believe it will ever be possible for humans to hibernate, at least not in the same way animals do.
Some biological research has been carried out on Arctic ground squirrels, which set their body temperatures to 0C or freezing point, in winter for hibernation.
Kelly Drew, a biochemist at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said: “We think that if we understand how they do it, we can replicate it in humans.”
She and colleagues at the university’s Institute of Arctic Biology claim to have potentially found a molecule that makes sure the mammal does not die while so cold called the A1 adenosine receptor.
They still don’t understand how it is triggered yet.
Drew added: “We don’t know where the signal occurs in the brain. It could be in the brain stem or the hypothalamus.”
Experiments on animals which do not normally hibernate using a drug that will stimulate the A1 adenosine receptor are expected next.
Fabio Evagelista is a Brazilian writer.
Crossed Paths is the first book of the Myra-Hati trilogy, an epic adventure in a post-apocalyptic world, for the lovers of sci-fi / fantasy genre. This is the author’s first work published in America.