Sigourney Weaver in the film Alien (Brandywine Productions Ltd.)

Will Mars Astronauts be put in Suspended Animation for the Journey?

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

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Could you handle six months in space with a tiny handful of crew? Keep in mind you’d be doing everything with them, eating, sleeping, chatting, working, waiting, more sleeping, the occasional emergency, more chatting… If you look around your office now, could you really see yourself spending 24/7 with any of those guys for 24 weeks? Even the happiest, close-knit family would find it hard, especially at the close quarters they are likely to endure. Even if you had to spend that time with your partner, someone you love dearly, there would be stresses… after all you can’t exactly storm out of the spaceship and float home. You’re in it for the long-term.

The solution? Put the astronauts on their way to Mars into a suspended animation state. This not only saves the astronauts from potentially dangerous arguments, it would also save on food, air and water. So how can this be done? Hydrogen sulfide, the gas produced by rotten eggs, may be able to help…

Peggy Whitson, NASA astronaut, spent a record breaking six months on board the International Space Station (she returned on April 19th with a bit of a bump) and it appears she was able to make it through the days on board the ISS with her crew. However, the ISS had a very busy few months, plus it’s had several changes of crew and various new modules have been added. The ISS is a very different environment to work in than on board future missions to Mars. For starters, the main mission is to get to the Red Planet; the transit from Earth will be seen as the “run-up”. Although valuable science will undoubtedly be done, the accommodations are likely to be cramped and Mars astronauts will see the same faces day in and day out. Confrontations could become a serious problem. Supplying the ship with enough food and water for the trip will also be a difficult task. How can all these issues be faced? Put the astronauts in suspended animation.

Probably more familiar in science fiction movies (like the 1979 classic Alien, pictured top), suspended animation has some serious problems. Cooling the human body was thought to be the key to slowing the metabolism down sufficiently so space-bound crews could slip into hibernation for the duration of the long trip, but it seems this interferes with the rhythm of the heart. Now scientists at Harvard believe they have a solution.

Dr Warren Zapol, the head of anaesthesiology at Harvard University’s Massachusetts General Hospital, has been working on the effects that hydrogen sulfide has on the human body. More commonly known for the pungent smell produced by rotten eggs, hydrogen sulphide has been used on mice and the results have been very interesting. When breathed in, the gas slows mouse metabolism, but does not reduce the flow of blood to the brain and doesn’t interfere with the heart.

The mice aren’t asleep. If you pinch their tails they respond. I don’t know what it’s like. Probably some slow-motion world.” – Dr Warren Zapol.

After about ten minutes of inhaling the gas, the mice slipped into a hibernation state. A reduction in oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production was measured. This reduction continued for as long as hydrogen sulfide was administered and the test subjects recovered fully after normal air flow was supplied for 30 minutes. What’s more, oxygen levels in the blood did not vary, signifying that the major organs were not at risk of being oxygen starved. Mouse heart rate also dropped by 50%.

Of course many tests will be needed before hydrogen sulfide is administered to humans, let alone astronauts, but the preliminary results are encouraging. It looks like mice are joining the monkeys in mankind’s future on Mars…

Source:
ABC Science


32 Responses

  1. Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner! AJames, that’s exactly the path that makes the most sense.

    By 2020 we should have the computing hardware necessary to reproduce the complexity of the human brain. It may take a little longer to reverse engineer the human brain, and a little longer than that to make a copy of a particular human’s brain.

    So by 2030 or so, it should be possible to send machines that are psychologically human but with the relatively low life support system requirements of machines.

    Switch the brains off and send them on their voyage in a package small enough that we could send with even today’s technology, and it won’t matter how long the trip takes. Boot them up upon arrival and let them go to work.

    Of course, by that point we should have pretty mature nanotech going, so constructing a return vessel should be doable.

    OTOH, why bother? Just beam the brain’s pattern in a data stream back to Earth to upload into a computer/robotic architecture. Yup, return trip at the speed of light. Teleportation for the real world. Well…the real world of a few decades from now.

  2. AJames says:

    Suspended animation – sounds like another Arthur C. Clarke influence again. Isn’t this the theme is already been in “2001 ; A Space Odyssey” and “The Songs of Distant Earth” when travelling on interplanetary or interstellar journeys.
    Whilst I concur with the views of investigation here, it is surprising the origin of the idea has not been recognised. Its funny when you “pass on” how quickly someone’s ideas are often relegated to history, and even more funny how much shorter and shorter the time becomes to fill the place of the empty vacuum.
    This is the same parallel issues like Ptolemy’s revamping of Hipparchus’ original stellar catalogue work. Another is Ripley’s experience in the “Alien”(s) movie – a good way towards helping the plot – but certainly this is not an original idea in the movies.
    No doubt, the adage ; “Those who control the future, control the past.” works well here.
    As the using hydrogen sulphide, it is both toxic (broad-spectrum poison) and in high concentrations is flammable. The long term effects of hydrogen sulphide would be probably be damaging to cells, but if used, at least could be manufactured biologically.

  3. AJames says:

    Just a wild thought, would it not be better to develop a method download and upload someone’s memories into an electronic format. Then you would not need any biological beings to send on the journey, downloaded in robotic ones to do the work and exploration.
    Perhaps a good idea for interplanetary travellers, but certainly much better for interstellar ones.

  4. Astrofiend says:

    Breath H2S gas, eh? That’s a seriously stinky way to go into hibernation! I think people would be throwing up left right and centre unless they were put under with some other general anesthetic first…

  5. Al Hall says:

    Ian,

    I have this really cool girlfriend who promises never to be mean to me (I know, they all say that), but so far… Oh… Anyway.. We can go to Mars, no prob, with the right people.
    But if we really feel that we must do it (hibernate), we do have the technology now to induce coma… being productive after waking up may be another story, but it could be worked out, I’m sure. I really don’t see that we need to get too ‘exotic’ yet.

  6. I hate to be a “downer,” but what about muscle/bone atrophy?

    No working out for six months equals weak astronauts unable to handle Martian gravity.

    We already have problems with this when astronauts are fully awake.

  7. Zac says:

    So what if an emergency occurs? What is the process to being awoken? How long does it take? Are there after effects? Once the emergency is dealt with, can a person re-enter the deep sleep immedietly?

    Interesting article to say the least.

  8. Al Hall says:

    Yep.. This article is just more fodder for me to scream about the need for speed…. Propulsion should be at the top of our priority list. We all seem to be resigned to the fact the we won’t be able to figure out how to go a hell of a lot faster for quite some time. Only reason being is that we don’t want to put our minds to it.. Shame on us.. 🙁

  9. Kevin White says:

    Didn’t somebody post about ion drives which constantly accelerate at around 1G for half the trip and constantly decelerate at -1G for the other half?

  10. PrimaCausa says:

    The trip to Mars will be quite a long one, and we will face a number of problems for the crew on the ship. Exposure to radiation, for one thing. But being with the same people in a confined space for a couple of months is the least of our problems.
    People manage to get along in prisons and in poor families (yes, in our beautiful world we can think up missions to Mars, and yet there are still tens of millions who share the same sleeping rooms with their great-grandmothers), without getting at each others’ throats.
    If we can bring up the funds to send a crew to Mars, we should also be able to provide them with enough leisure time and, most importantly, room to get out of each others’ way. Put in a Playstation and a broadband internet access, and the couple of months even a low-energy transfer to Mars takes will go by in a whizz.
    Besides, wouldn’t the crew on our ship be hand-picked for not going psycho after a couple of weeks, and wouldn’t Ground Control do their best to keep them busy?

  11. Al Hall says:

    AJames,

    You’re right……….. That is a wild thought……… 🙂

  12. Rob says:

    I’m of the opinion that when AI really takes off in the next 20+ years that future long-distance astronauts will be computers. Biological beings just aren’t built for space travel.

    But with future virtual realities being no doubt super-realistic, humans might get to experience something very close to what the computers send back as sensory data.

  13. LLDIAZ says:

    This idea stinks don’t like it, raises too many questions. What if there were a baseball size meteor and it struck at moments notice it would take about an hour for every one to realize what happenend and by that time it would be too late. I’m sorry but I believe the last thing an astronaut wants to feel during an emergency is groggy.

  14. PrimaCausa says:

    @Rob: “Biological beings just aren’t built for space travel” –
    I agree. No, we are not “built” for anything but survival in a rather narrowly defined area, ie the African savannah. However, we have done rather well in quite uncomfortable environments such as the nastier parts of Alaska and Greenland, and we have gone to places so remote no one could imagine they even exist, such as the Easter Islands. And we’ve done that hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.
    No virtual reality will ever evoke the emotions the first human will experience when she or he watches a sunset on Mars, and no VR can ever match the feeling of accomplishment the first human ever to have climbed Olympus Mons will have.
    These will be very precious moments for our species!
    And frankly, I prefer hearing “one small step”, knowing that it was actually uttered by one of my kind, to witnessing in VR… well, just about anything, however cool it may seem.

  15. Graham says:

    Just to pour a gentle shower on this parade:
    As I understand it, hydrogen sulphide is a cytochrome oxidase inhibitor so despite there being oxygen in the blood stream and tissues, it is unavailable for cellular respiration. Rather like taking cyanide then. I don’t think I’ll volunteer fro this process.

  16. Ben says:

    Muscle atrophy could be dealt with by exercising the muscles electronically. My main gripe is that H2S is pretty poisonous. (Wikipedia:)

    * 0.0047 ppm is the recognition threshold, the concentration at which 50% of humans can detect the characteristic odor of hydrogen sulfide [3], normally described as resembling “a rotten egg”.
    * 10-20 ppm is the borderline concentration for eye irritation.
    * 50-100 ppm leads to eye damage.
    * At 150-250 ppm the olfactory nerve is paralyzed after a few inhalations, and the sense of smell disappears, often together with awareness of danger,
    * 320-530 ppm leads to pulmonary edema with the possibility of death.
    * 530-1000 ppm causes strong stimulation of the central nervous system and rapid breathing, leading to loss of breathing;
    o 800 ppm is the lethal concentration for 50% of humans for 5 minutes exposure(LC50).
    * Concentrations over 1000 ppm cause immediate collapse with loss of breathing, even after inhalation of a single breath.

    So how much would be required for this hibernation? Even if the people survived it they would certainly loose the ability to smell, possibly blindness.

  17. Dark Gnat says:

    Hmm, just imagine feeding the crew beans and hard boiled eggs.

    Although, I certainly wouldn’t want to breath that!

  18. Bob says:

    Why wont anyone use Nuclear propulsion the way it could be. We use it on navy ships and subs. If we can fit one on a sub, we could put one on the equivalent of a space sub…. not much different… both are self contained life support vehicles which operate in conditions which would kill its passengers. A sub keep the crushing water pressure out, the space sub would keep the vacuum out. If we were to replicate that in space, it would haul A_S. Instead of using ions which have ridiculously little thrust, we could keep the petal to the metal and achieve speeds in the 100,000s of thousands or even a millions miles per hour. It would require very little fuel weight and would be a nearly limitless supply of major thrust. The problem is obviously building a reactor in space. We have the technology but I don’t think the general public would go for launching reactor grade nuclear material in the event of catastrophic Colombia take off. This could be easily contained with the right container however. Although voyager is powered by a low grade radioactive isotope and is only powered by their decay rate energy, which isn’t much.

    If we really want to get somewhere, Nasa needs to “man up” and harness what we know as the most powerful energy source on earth.

    In for a penny, in for a pound… Go big or go home….

    Thats my two cents….

  19. David says:

    Until we solve the problem of our limitations existing in 3 dimensions, we will not travel very far. I am weary of discussing space travel from purely a propulsion-driven mindset. String theory holds the mathematical promise that interdimensional travel is possible. It is virtually impractical to travel anywhere other than maybe the moon.

  20. randy says:

    hydrogen sulfite is poison to people at low parts per million very low it causes central nerves dammage

  21. randy says:

    hydrogen sulfide is poison and has been compared to syonide
    * 0.0047 ppm is the recognition threshold, the concentration at which 50% of humans can detect the characteristic odor of hydrogen sulfide [3], normally described as resembling “a rotten egg”.
    * 10-20 ppm is the borderline concentration for eye irritation.
    * 50-100 ppm leads to eye damage.
    * At 150-250 ppm the olfactory nerve is paralyzed after a few inhalations, and the sense of smell disappears, often together with awareness of danger,
    * 320-530 ppm leads to pulmonary edema with the possibility of death.
    * 530-1000 ppm causes strong stimulation of the central nervous system and rapid breathing, leading to loss of breathing;
    o 800 ppm is the lethal concentration for 50% of humans for 5 minutes exposure(LC50).
    * Concentrations over 1000 ppm cause immediate collapse with loss of breathing, even after inhalation of a single breath.

    A practical test used in the oilfield industry to determine whether someone requires overnight observation for pulmonary edema is the knee test: if a worker that gets “gassed” loses his balance and at least one knee touches the ground, the dose was high enough to cause pulmonary edema.

    [edit]

  22. KC says:

    Imagine the state of future colonies populated by the offspring of early pioneers selected for their ability to get along with others. Later travelers with greater personality diversity might find them unbearable.

  23. Molecular says:

    I think, perhaps, the MOST artistic people could provide an answer to the kinds of problems that might face these astronauts best. People who can spend very LONG hours out of a day, for days on end without worry of the passage of time, until the boss, to their surprise, says that their work-day is now done.

    There is something about the human mind, that, in some sense, can be distracted away from such mundane things that would normally cause the average person to go psycho within a short span of time. Provided that the settings, or, atmosphere is right, just as people who enjoy their careers to the point where they don’t even consider it work, these somewhat long journeys in space should not be of any alarm from a psychological aspect.

  24. Silver Thread says:

    A high speed connection and access to the internet seems like a reasonable way to while away the hours.

    Up to a year at a time is spent on a Navy vessel during an expeditionary cruise. That time is primarily filled with performing maintenance and drilling for various emergency scenarios.

    Granted there is the occasional interlude in the form of a Port Call which really makes a monumental difference but I think the key to avoiding a lot of the personality issues is to keep everyone focused on their goal and prevent too much free time from finding it’s way onto the schedule.

    I also agree with the Idea Bob put forth. I know Engineers roll their eyes and clutch their protractors in tense anger when people talk about it, but honestly a sizable ship, makes more sense to me, and as Al Hall mentioned, this thing needs to be Fast.

  25. Josh says:

    No problem. When Halo 3 came out, I sat on my butt for 6 months easy. We just need NASA to develop bigger and better video games. 🙂

  26. Ian O'Neill says:

    I love Josh’s solution – When I think about it, I lost 5 months of university to Zelda and more recently several weeks to Grand Theft Auto… A trek to Mars would be the perfect change to get some gaming time it… I hear the new GTA is good, I’ll sign up for the trip! 😀

    Cheers, Ian

  27. alphonso richardson says:

    Download memories?
    We don’t even know how the damn brain works, never mind uploading memories/personalities.
    (I’m scared Dave……..)
    What would happen to the brain banyway in suspended animation? No offence, but I’d like to think the human brain is (slightly) more complex than a rodent’s (or at least have major differences), but it’s a good place to start……

  28. Eric Conrad says:

    “But with future virtual realities being no doubt super-realistic, humans might get to experience something very close to what the computers send back as sensory data.”

    OMG, that’s a beautiful thought. I love the idea. Talk about bringing the universe to the masses!!!

  29. Eric Conrad says:

    I don’t see how to edit, but here’s another thought…

    Yes, BEING on Mars or the Moon is a much better experience than seeing it in VR. But if there is a probe that could give us the VR, imagine the PR for that! Imagine that you could have Neil Armstrong’s view when he put his foot down on the surface. Feel the lunar dust, grip the ladder, and see what he saw. Maybe not as inspiring, but definately a way to engage the public.

    On the other hand, we can probably do all of that programming without actually going there. sigh

  30. Deja View says:

    Haven’t seen this suggestion proffered, so I’ll be the first to put my neck in the noose. How about a pair of ships flying either tethered or in tandem?

    The benefits are several:

    1. We can send more people. Just the sheer increase in numbers and space to move about should keep morale levels healthier than on a single-ship mission, since the crews can be rotated between ships in various combinations. This would relieve a lot of pressure on everyone, from crewmembers to psych evaluators who must otherwise construct a crew to very close social tolerances, and possibly be forced to cut personnel with top-grade professional skills but who come up a bit short on social qualities. Just the thought that there’s somewhere else one can go to if A and B are not getting along would be mighty comforting, IMHO.

    2. Each ship can bear a primary version of a necessary item or operation while the other ship has a more basic version. Examples: a first aid station on Ship Alpha and a more elaborate medical station on Ship Beta, extensive science lab equipment on Alpha with a back-up on Beta, etc. Food storage and preparations, life support, emergency equipment, computers, construction materials and equipment for use on arrival, can all be divided accordingly.

    3. The time spent on the voyage would allow for cross-training or even holding classes, giving and receiving briefings, and formulating proposals for activities, repairs and experiments both among the crew and with Mission Control.

    4. Product designs could be multi-purpose, so that in extreme situations, one ship could be cannibalized in order to make the other habitable. Even a ship that could not support life in space might still be useful after landing on Mars.

    Obviously, such a plan would be more expensive than building and loading a single ship, but the cost of the project may not be doubled since many components would be duplicated, which could lower the unit price.

    I just think that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, and the increase in the mission’s success as well as the reduction in the toll taken on the crew would justify the added expense. I know I’d feel better knowing that there was somewhere else I could go “just in case.”

  31. Deja View says:

    Haven’t seen this suggestion proffered, so I’ll be the first to put my neck in the noose. How about a pair of ships flying either tethered or in tandem?

    The benefits are several:

    1. We can send more people. Just the sheer increase in numbers and space to move about should keep morale levels healthier than on a single-ship mission, since the crews can be rotated between ships in various combinations. This would relieve a lot of pressure on everyone, from crewmembers to psych evaluators who must otherwise construct a crew to very close social tolerances, and possibly be forced to cut personnel with top-grade professional skills but who come up a bit short on social qualities. Just the thought that there’s somewhere else one can go to if A and B are not getting along would be mighty comforting, IMHO.

    2. Each ship can bear a primary version of a necessary item or operation while the other ship has a more basic version. Examples: a first aid station on Ship Alpha and a more elaborate medical station on Ship Beta, extensive science lab equipment on Alpha with a back-up on Beta, etc. Food storage and preparations, life support, emergency equipment, computers, construction materials and equipment for use on arrival, can all be divided accordingly.

    3. The time spent on the voyage would allow for cross-training or even holding classes, giving and receiving briefings, and formulating proposals for activities, repairs and experiments both among the crew and with Mission Control.

    4. Product designs could be multi-purpose, so that in extreme situations, one ship could be cannibalized in order to make the other habitable. Even a ship that could not support life in space might still be useful after landing on Mars.

    Obviously, such a plan would be more expensive than building and loading a single ship, but the cost of the project may not be doubled since many components would be duplicated, which could lower the unit price.

    I just think that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, and the increase in the mission’s success as well as the reduction in the toll taken on the crew would justify the added expense. I’m sure I’d feel better knowing that there was somewhere else I could go “just in case.”

  32. Ben says:

    What would happen when the astronauts finally woke up? Perhaps their bodies temporarily forgot how to walk (although in zero gravity, I don’t know why I’m bring this up), but what about if they woke up and forgot where they were, and panicked?

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