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

by Ian O'Neill on May 6, 2008

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

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

randy May 7, 2008 at 9:33 AM

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]

KC May 7, 2008 at 10:13 AM

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.

Molecular May 7, 2008 at 12:08 PM

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.

Silver Thread May 7, 2008 at 3:57 PM

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.

Josh May 8, 2008 at 4:33 PM

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. :)

Ian O'Neill May 9, 2008 at 10:40 AM

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! :D

Cheers, Ian

alphonso richardson May 9, 2008 at 5:00 AM

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……

Eric Conrad May 13, 2008 at 3:44 PM

“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!!!

Eric Conrad May 13, 2008 at 3:49 PM

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

Deja View May 19, 2008 at 3:09 PM

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.”

Deja View May 22, 2008 at 10:39 AM

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.”

Ben September 6, 2008 at 1:02 AM

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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