Astronauts that hibernate on long spaceflights is not just for sci-fi. We could test it in 10 years.

"Before we can use it on people, everything needs to be adjusted. However, I believe that a feasible timetable is 10 years."

Within ten years, a scholar with the European Space Agency (ESA) believes that it will be possible to conduct the first hibernation experiments on humans.

Such studies would prepare the way for a futuristic strategy for long-duration space trips in which the crew members would be put into a safe slumber for weeks or months while traveling to far-off locations.

In addition to keeping the crew members from getting tired on a year-long journey to Mars, hibernating would reduce mission costs because they wouldn't need to consume or drink and would even use less air than conscious crew members. Hibernation has other, more peculiar advantages as well. Animal studies indicate that astronauts in hibernation may lose much less body mass than astronauts who are conscious in space. These hibernators would therefore be prepared to start difficult travel almost as soon as they awoke upon arrival.

Hibernation, also known as torpor, has long been a mainstay of science fiction space pictures due to all of these factors. From "Alien" to "2001: A Space Odyssey," fictitious space passengers have traveled great distances while being cocooned asleep inside high-tech pods, with android robots and AI computers guiding their ship on a straight path.

Even though it's a sci-fi cliché, sending people into prolonged induced torpor might not be such a crazy notion after all. The first human torpor trials could start as early as the mid-2030s, according to Jennifer Ngo-Anh, an ESA research and payload supervisor for human and robotic exploration and a co-author of a recent paper detailing the space agency's strategy for hibernation research.

"Of course, everything needs to be polished before being used on people. However, I believe that a feasible time frame is 10 years "said Ngo-Anh.

This adjusting is already in progress. First experiments have demonstrated that it is feasible to put normally non-hibernating animals, like rats, into torpor and then successfully bring them back to life a few days later. Hibernation is induced by a complex process that includes decreased exposure to light, a time of heavy feeding, and a rigid fast.

According to Jürgen Bereiter-Hahn, professor emeritus of neuroscience and cell biology at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and a member of the ESA's hibernation research group, "the rats receive a drug, a neurotransmitter substance, and are brought into a dark space with reduced temperature." "The issue is that you need to apply the signaling molecule frequently to keep the condition, even though it functions very well. The neurotransmitter must be kept at very high amounts, which could have negative long-term consequences."

Why do we want individuals to go into hibernation?

Is induced torpor ever going to be secure enough to be given to astronauts in teeny spacecraft with scant medical care and resources? Ngo-Anh has a distinct viewpoint on the issue. In truth, she claimed, torpor might be the only option for extended space trips.

For astronauts, losing bone and muscular density is a major problem. Astronauts can lose up to 20% of their muscular mass in a month, despite having access to sophisticated fitness equipment and following rigorous exercise regimens on the International Space Station(opens in new tab). Their bones progressively become weakened as well. The fragile creatures being carried by medical staff in wheelchairs and stretchers are frequently seen in footage of teams returning to Earth. However, after an arrival on Mars, there won't be any ready support teams.

Bereiter-Hahn stated that "this is a serious issue for pilots in microgravity." Astronauts must put in a lot of training because, otherwise, returning to gravity would be extremely difficult for them.

According to research, long-term bed rest has impacts on the human body that are similar to those of microgravity. It's odd that bed rest while sleeping doesn't appear to have any such affects. In contrast to a person emerging from a protracted sickness or coma, an animal emerging from hibernation displays remarkably high levels of health.

According to Ngo-Anh, when creatures emerge from hibernation, they rapidly recall their environments. After spending months simply lying and resting in a cave, they instantly recall where they concealed their food before hibernating, and they don't actually lose much muscular mass.

Researchers believe that the physiology of the torpor state holds the secret to its protective benefits. Although the process of hibernation mimics slumber on the surface, it operates entirely differently within the body. A brain in hibernation scarcely emits any electromagnetic activity, in contrast to a brain that is asleep. In torpor, an animal's body temperature lowers to a level that would otherwise be dangerously hypothermic, and its heart rate decreases to just a few beats per minute. Even the body's cells, which normally process or produce nutrition, divide, and die, cease to function as usual. By all biochemical standards, entering a condition of torpor is akin to pausing time.

Alexander Choukèr, a professor of medicine and anesthesiology specialist at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, who is also a part of the ESA team, told that studies have shown that preventing animals from entering torpor shortens their longevity. "The animals can survive for five years, for instance, when they have these torpor periods in between. It might only be four years if the torpor is absent."

The promise of the torpor condition for spaceflight operations is largely due to this pause-button property. The organization would not only spend less on water, food, and air thanks to the astronaut hibernating in a spacecraft headed for Mars. He or she would likely awaken relatively healthy, free from many of the adverse effects of extended bed rest or life in microgravity. One of the greatest health worries during long-duration space trips is the possibility of radiation harm to the slowed-down cells of a body that is hibernating, but studies have shown that this is not the case.

Benefit for medication

Hibernation is an intriguing prospect for both travel and medicine because of its protective qualities. Patients on prolonged bed rest and those in medically induced coma rapidly deteriorate, just like astronauts in space. Recovery takes time and is laborious.

People still deteriorate, despite the frequent use of anesthetic, claimed Choukèr. "If you spend a lot of time in an intensive care unit, the degradation process that takes over after you depart will leave you looking like a skeleton. The ability to press the stop icon would be revolutionary."

A "bridge," as described by Bereiter-Hahn, would be created by minimally slowing down all living processes, including degradative ones. During this time, doctors could consider options without feeling the pressure of time pressure.

According to Bereiter-Hahn, "you can use that time to, for example, create special antibodies for a tumor and effectively cure that tumor." Also in organ donation, the patient and the entire organ would be placed into a state of torpor so that they could be exchanged with much less risk to the patient.

In fact, Ngo-Anh continued, cardiac and cerebral doctors have long used cooling to enhance the results of challenging operations.

Choukèr believes that the first person to enter this paused state of being will probably be a critical care patient, even though the majority of the present hibernation study is supported by zoology and space organizations. Torpor will likely help the first person live, and after that, things will probably proceed much more quickly.

The first person must be exposed to these circumstances, as has always been the case in medicine, according to Choukèr. "When the risks and rewards are evenly balanced and leaning more toward the subject's advantages, case number one is where you implement [the new method]. After that, you can proceed from there."

Choukèr is unconcerned if medicine hasn't completely figured out the intricate biochemical workings of the torpor state by then, including all of its neurotransmitter communication and environmental variables. Just as they have for decades, patients (and pilots) may continue to gain from general anesthesia.

Choukèr said, "We use [anesthesia] every day, but we still don't fully comprehend how it operates. "Over the past 20 years, we've learned a lot, but undoubtedly, when they first began administering anesthesia, there was no real understanding of how this was operating in the brain."

However, the experts concur that sleep would need to function without complex life support systems and continuously watched intravenous lines in order to be useful in orbit. As a result, it might take much longer to get from patient one to a voyage to Mars.