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

by

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


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Underlings
Member
May 6, 2008 11:49 PM
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… Read more »
Andrew James
Member
May 6, 2008 8:43 PM
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… Read more »
Andrew James
Member
May 6, 2008 8:54 PM

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.

Astrofiend
Member
Astrofiend
May 6, 2008 5:55 PM

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…

Al Hall
Member
Al Hall
May 6, 2008 6:09 PM

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.

Darnell Clayton
Member
May 6, 2008 6:17 PM

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.

Zac
Guest
Zac
May 6, 2008 6:21 PM

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.

Al Hall
Member
Al Hall
May 6, 2008 6:38 PM

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.. sad

Kevin White
Guest
Kevin White
May 6, 2008 7:34 PM

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?

PrimaCausa
Guest
PrimaCausa
May 6, 2008 9:01 PM
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… Read more »
Al Hall
Member
Al Hall
May 6, 2008 9:27 PM

AJames,

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

bugzzz
Member
bugzzz
May 6, 2008 9:33 PM

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.

LLDIAZ
Guest
LLDIAZ
May 7, 2008 6:48 AM

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.

PrimaCausa
Guest
PrimaCausa
May 7, 2008 12:04 AM
@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… Read more »
GrahamC
Member
GrahamC
May 7, 2008 12:39 AM

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.

Ben
Guest
Ben
May 7, 2008 2:46 AM
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… Read more »
Dark Gnat
Guest
Dark Gnat
May 7, 2008 6:32 AM

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

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

Bob
Guest
Bob
May 7, 2008 7:00 AM
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… Read more »
David R.
Member
David R.
May 7, 2008 8:12 AM

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.

randy
Guest
randy
May 7, 2008 9:25 AM

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

wpDiscuz