Is Human Hibernation Possible? Going to Sleep for Long Duration Spaceflight

Sleeping for Centuries?

We’ve spent a few articles on Universe Today talking about just how difficult it’s going to be to travel to other stars. Sending tiny unmanned probes across the vast gulfs between stars is still mostly science fiction. But to send humans on that journey? That’s just a level of technology beyond comprehension.

For example, the nearest star is Proxima Centauri, located a mere 4.25 light years away. Just for comparison, the Voyager spacecraft, the most distant human objects ever built by humans, would need about 50,000 years to make that journey.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t anticipate living 50,000 years. No, we’re going to want to make the journey more quickly. But the problem, of course, is that going more quickly requires more energy, new forms of propulsion we’ve only starting to dream up. And if you go too quickly, mere grains of dust floating through space become incredibly dangerous.

Based on our current technology, it’s more likely that we’re going to have to take our time getting to another star.

And if you’re going to go the slower route, you’ve got a couple of options. Create a generational ship, so that successive generations of humans are born, live out their lives, and then die during the hundreds or even thousands of year long journey to another star.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

Imagine you’re one of the people destined to live and die, never reaching your destination. Especially when you look out your window and watch a warp ship zip past with all those happy tourists headed to Proxima Centauri, who were start enough to wait for warp drives to be invented.

No, you want to sleep for the journey to the nearest star, so that when you get there, it’s like no time passed. And even if warp drive did get invented while you were asleep, you didn’t have to see their smug tourist faces as they zipped past.

Is human hibernation possible? Can we do it long enough to survive a long-duration spaceflight journey and wake up again on the other side?

Before I get into this, we’re just going to have to assume that we never merge with our robot overlords, upload ourselves into the singularity, and effortlessly travel through space with our cybernetic bodies.

For some reason, that whole singularity thing never worked out, or the robots went on strike and refused to do our space exploration for us any more. And so, the job of space travel fell to us, the fragile, 80-year lifespanned mammals. Exploring the worlds within the Solar System and out to other stars, spreading humanity into the cosmos.

Artist’s impression of astronauts exploring the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/JSC/Pat Rawlings, SAIC

Come on, we know it’ll totally be the robots. But that’s not what the science fiction tells us, so let’s dig into it.

We see animals, and especially mammals hibernating all the time in nature. In order to be able survive over a harsh winter, animals are capable of slowing their heart rate down to just a few beats a minute. They don’t need to eat or drink, surviving on their fat stores for months at a time until food returns.

It’s not just bears and rodents that can do it, by the way, there are actually a couple of primates, including the fat-tailed dwarf lemur from Madagascar. That’s not too far away on the old family tree, so there might be hope for human hibernation after all.

In fact, medicine is already playing around with human hibernation to improve people’s chances to survive heart attacks and strokes. The current state of this technology is really promising.

They use a technique called therapeutic hypothermia, which lowers the temperature of a person by a few degrees. They can use ice packs or coolers, and doctors have even tried pumping a cooled saline solution through the circulatory system. With the lowered temperature, a human’s metabolism decreases and they fall unconscious into a torpor.

But the trick is to not make them so unconscious that they die. It’s a fine line.

The results have been pretty amazing. People have been kept in this torpor state for up to 14 days, going through multiple cycles.

The therapeutic use of this torpor is still under research, and doctors are learning if it’s helpful for people with heart attacks, strokes or even the progression of diseases like cancer. They’re also trying to figure out if there are any downsides, but so far, there don’t seem to be any long-term problems with putting someone in this torpor state.

A few years ago, SpaceWorks Enterprises delivered a report to NASA on how they could use this therapeutic hypothermia for long duration spaceflight within the Solar System.

Currently, a trip to Mars takes about 6-9 months. And during that time, the human passengers are going to be using up precious air, water and food. But in this torpor state, SpaceWorks estimates that the crew will a reduction in their metabolic rate of 50 to 70%. Less metabolism, less resources needed. Less cargo that needs to be sent to Mars.

Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc

The astronauts wouldn’t need to move around, so you could keep them nice and snug in little pods for the journey. And they wouldn’t get into fights with each other, after 6-9 months of nothing but day after day of spaceflight.

We know that weightlessness has a negative effect on the body, like loss of bone mass and atrophy of muscles. Normally astronauts exercise for hours every day to counteract the negative effects of the reduced gravity. But SpaceWorks thinks it would be more effective to just put the astronauts into a rotating module and let artificial gravity do the work of maintaining their conditioning.

They envision a module that’s 4 metres high and 8 metres wide. If you spin the habitat at 20 revolutions per minute, you give the crew the equivalent of Earth gravity. Go at only 11.8 RPM and it’ll feel like Mars gravity. Down to 7.8 and it’s lunar gravity.

Normally spinning that fast in a habitat that small would be extremely uncomfortable as the crew would experience different forces at different parts of their body. But remember, they’ll be in a state of torpor, so they really won’t care.

Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc
Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc

Current plans for sending colonists to Mars would require 40 ton habitats to support 6 people on the trip. But according to SpaceWorks, you could reduce the weight down to 15 tons if you just let them sleep their way through the journey. And the savings get even better with more astronauts.

The crew probably wouldn’t all sleep for the entire journey. Instead, they’d sleep in shifts for a few weeks. Taking turns to wake up, check on the status of the spacecraft and crew before returning to their cryosleep caskets.

What’s the status of this now? NASA funded stage 1 of the SpaceWorks proposal, and in July, 2016 NASA moved forward with Phase 2 of the project, which will further investigate this technique for Mars missions, and how it could be used even farther out in the Solar System.

Elon Musk should be interested in seeing their designs for a 100-person module for sending colonists to Mars.

Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc
Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc

In addition, the European Space Agency has also been investigating human hibernation, and a possible way to enable long-duration spaceflight. They have plans to test out the technology on various non-hibernating mammals, like pigs. If their results are positive, we might see the Europeans pushing this technology forward.

Can we go further, putting people to sleep for decades and maybe even the centuries it would take to travel between the stars?

Right now, the answer is no. We don’t have any technology at our disposal that could do this. We know that microbial life can be frozen for hundreds of years. Right now there are parts of Siberia unfreezing after centuries of permafrost, awakening ancient microbes, viruses, plants and even animals. But nothing on the scale of human beings.

When humans freeze, ice crystals form in our cells, rupturing them permanently. There is one line of research that offers some hope: cryogenics. This process replaces the fluids of the human body with an antifreeze agent which doesn’t form the same destructive crystals.

Scientists have successfully frozen and then unfrozen 50-milliliters (almost a quarter cup) of tissue without any damage.

In the next few years, we’ll probably see this technology expanded to preserving organs for transplant, and eventually entire bodies, and maybe even humans. Then this science fiction idea might actually turn into reality. We’ll finally be able to sleep our way between the stars.

Pardon My Vomit: Zero G Ettiquette In the Age Of Space Tourism

It’s a new era for space travel. And if there’s one thing that sets it apart from the previous one, it is the spirit of collaboration that exists between space agencies and between the public and private sector. And with commercial aerospace (aka. NewSpace) companies looking to provide everything from launch services to orbital and lunar tourism, a day is fast-approaching when ordinary people will be able to go into space.

Because of this, many aerospace companies are establishing safety and training programs for prospective clients. If civilians plan on going into space, they need to have the benefit of some basic astronaut training. In short, they will need to learn how to go safely conduct themselves in a zero-gravity environment, with everything from how to avoid blowing chunks to how to relieve oneself in a tidy fashion.

In recent years, companies like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures, Golden Spike, and SpaceX have all expressed interest in making space accessible to tourists. The proposed ventures range from taking passengers on suborbital spaceflights – a la Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo – to trips into orbit (or the Moon) aboard a space capsule – a la Blue Origins’ New Shepard launch system.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo’s performing a glide flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic

And while these trips will not be cheap – Virgin Galactic estimates that a single seat aboard SpaceShipTwo will cost $250,000 – they absolutely have to be safe! Luckily, space agencies like NASA already have a very well-established and time-honored practice for training astronauts for zero-g. Perhaps the most famous involves flying them around in a Zero-Gravity Aircraft, colloquially known as the “Vomit Comet”.

This training program is really quite straightforward. After bringing astronaut trainees to an altitude of over 10,000 meters (32,000 feet), the plane begins flying in a parabolic arc. This consists of it climbing and falling, over and over, which causes the trainees to experience the feeling of weightlessness whenever the plane is falling. The name “vomit comet” (obviously) arises from the fact that passengers tend to lose their lunch in the process.

The Soviet-era space program also conducted weightlessness training, which Roscomos has continued since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 1984, the European Space Agency (ESA) has also conducts parabolic flights using a specially-modified Airbus A300 B2 aircraft. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has done the same since it was founded in 1989, relying on the Falcon 20 twin-engine jet.

Given the fact that NASA has been sending astronauts into space for nearly 60 years, they have certainly accrued a lot of experience in dealing with the effects of weightlessness. Over the short-term, these include space adaptation syndrome (SAS), which is also known as “space sickness”. True to its name, the symptoms of SAS include nausea and vomiting, vertigo, headaches, lethargy, and an overall feeling of unease.

Hawking has experienced zero gravity before, when he flew on Zero Gravity Corp’s modified Boeing 727 in 2007. Credit: Jim Campbell/Aero-News Network

Roughly 45% of all people who have flown in space have suffered from space sickness. The duration of varies, but cases have never been shown to exceed 72 hours, after which the body adapts to the new environment. And with the benefit of training, which includes acclimating to what weightlessness feels like, both the onset and duration can be mitigated.

Beyond NASA and other space agencies, private companies have also offered reduced gravity training to private customers. In 2004, the Zero Gravity Corporation (Zero-G, based in Arlington, Virginia) became the first company in the US to offer parabolic flights using a converted Boeing 727. In 2008, the company was acquired by Space Adventures, another Virginia-based space tourism company.

Much like Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures began offering clients advance bookings for sub-orbital flights, and has since expanded their vision to include lunar spaceflights. As such, the Zero-G experience has become their training platform, allowing clients the ability to experience weightlessness before going into space. In addition, some of the 700 clients who have already booked tickets with Virgin Galactic have used this same training method to prepare.

Similarly, Virgin Galactic is taking steps to prepare its astronauts for the day when they begin making regular flights into sub-orbit. According to the company, this will consist of astronauts taking part in a three day pre-flight preparation program that will be conducted onsite at Spaceport America – Virgin Galactic’s spaceflight facility, located in New Mexico.

Aside from microgravity, their astronaut training will also emphasize how to function when experiencing macrogravity (i.e. multi-g forces), which occur during periods of acceleration. The training will also include medical check-ups, psychological evaluations, and other forms of pre-flight prepation – much in the same way that regular astronauts are prepared for their journey. As they state on their website:

“Pre-flight preparation will ensure that each astronaut is mentally and physically prepared to savor every second of the spaceflight. Basic emergency response training prescribed by our regulators will be at the forefront. Activities to aid familiarity with the spaceflight environment will follow a close second.”

Blue Origin, meanwhile, has also been addressing concerns with regards to its plan to start sending tourists into suborbit in their New Shepard system. After launching from their pad outside of El Paso, Texas, the rocket will fly customers to an altitude of 100 km (62 mi) above the Earth. During this phase, the passengers will experience 3 Gs of acceleration – i.e. three times what they are used to.

Once it reaches space, the capsule will then detach from the rocket. During this time, the passengers will experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Between the intense acceleration and the feeling of freefall, many have wondered if potential clients should be worried about space sickness. These questions have been addressed by former NASA astronaut Nicholas Patrick, who now serves as Blue Origin’s human integration architect.

During an interview with Geekwire in January of 2017, he indicated that they plan to provide barf bags for customers to tuck into their flight suits, just in case. This is similar to what astronauts do aboard the International Space Station (see video above) and during long-term spaceflights. When asked about what customers could do to prepare for space sickness, he also emphasized that some training would be provided:

“It’s a short flight, so we won’t be asking people to train for a year, the way NASA astronauts trained for a shuttle flight, or three years, the way they train for a long space station mission. We’re going to get this training down to a matter of days, or less. That’s because we don’t have very many tasks. You need to know how to get out of your seat gracefully, and back into your seat safely.

“We’ll teach you a few safety procedures, like how to use the fire extinguisher – and maybe how to use the communication system, although that will come naturally to many people. What we’ll probably spend some time on is training people how to enjoy it. What are they going to take with them and use up there? How are they going to play? How are they going to experiment? Not too much training, just enough to have fun.”

“Getting sick to your stomach can be a problem on zero-G airplane flights like NASA’s “Vomit Comet,” but motion sickness typically doesn’t come up until you’ve gone through several rounds of zero-G. Blue Origin’s suborbital space ride lasts only 11 minutes, with a single four-minute dose of weightlessness.”

Bezos also addressed these questions in early April during the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, where his company was showcasing the New Shepard crew capsule. Here too, audience members had questions about what passengers should do if they felt the need to vomit (among the other things) in space.

“They don’t throw up right away,” he said, referring to astronauts succumbing to space sickness. “We’re not going to worry about it… It takes about three hours before you start to throw up. It’s a delayed effect. And this journey takes ten or eleven minutes. So you’re going to be fine.”

On April 27th, during a special Q&A session of Twitch Science Week, Universe Today’s own Fraser Cain took part in a panel discussion about the future of space exploration. Among the panelists were and Ariane Cornell, the head of Astronaut Strategy and Sales for Blue Origin. When the subject of training and etiquette came up, she described the compact process Blue Origins intends to implement to prepare customers for their flight:

“[T]he day before flight is when we give you a full – intense, but very fun – day of training. So they are going to teach you all the crucial things that you need. So ingress, how do you get into the capsule, how do you buckle in. Egress, how do you get out of the seat, out of the hatch. We’re going to teach you some emergency procedures, because we want to make sure that you guys are prepared, and feel comfortable. We’re also going to teach you about zero-g etiquette, so then when we’re all up there and we’re doing our somersaults, you know… no Matrix scenes, no Kung Fu fighting – you gotta make sure that everybody gets to enjoy the flight.”

When asked (by Fraser) if people should skip breakfast, she replied:

“No. It’s the most important meal of the day. You’re going to want to have your energy and we’re pretty confident that you’re going to have a good ride and you’re not going to feel nauseous. It’s one parabola. And when we’ve seen people, for example, when they go on rides on NASA’s “Vomit Comet”… What we’ve seen from those types of parabolic flights is that people – if they get sick – its parabola six, seven, eight. It’s a delayed effect, really. We think that with that one parabola – four minutes – you’re going to enjoy every second of it.”

Another interesting issue was addressed during the 33rd Space Symposium was whether or not the New Shepard capsule would have “facilities”. When asked about this, Bezos was similarly optimistic. “Go to the bathroom in advance,” he said, to general laughter. “If you have to pee in 11 minutes, you got problems.” He did admit that with boarding, the entire experience could take up to 41 minutes, but that passengers should be able to wait that long (fingers crossed!)

But in the event of longer flights, bathroom etiquette will need to be an issue. After all, its not exactly easy to relieve oneself in an environment where all things – solid and liquid – float freely and therefore cannot simply be flushed away. Luckily, NASA and other space agencies have us covered there too. Aboard the ISS, where astronauts have to relieve themselves regularly, waste-disposal is handled by “zero-g toilets”.

Similar to what astronauts used aboard the Space Shuttle, a zero-g toilet involves an astronaut fastening themselves to the toilet seat. Rather than using water, the removal of waste is accomplished with a vacuum suction hole. Liquid waste is transferred to the Water Recovery System, where it is converted back into drinking water (that’s right, astronauts drink their own pee… sort of).

Solid waste is collected in individual bags that are stored in an aluminum container, which are then transferred to the docked spacecraft for disposal. Remember that scene in The Martian where Mark Watney collected his crew members solid waste to use as fertilizer? Well, its much the same. Poo in a bag, and then let someone remove it and deal with it once you get home.

When it comes to lunar tourism, space sickness and waste disposal will be a must. And when it comes to Elon Musk’s plan to start ferrying people to Mars in the coming decades – aboard his Interplanetary Transportation System – it will be an absolute must! It will certainly be interesting to see how those who intend to get into the lunar tourism biz, and those who want to colonize Mars, will go about addressing these needs.

In the meantime, keep your eyes on the horizon, keep your barf bags handy, and make sure your zero-g toilet has a tight seal!

Sources:

Are Astronauts Really Weightless?

Look at those astronauts, flying through space without a care in the world. But how can they be floating when there’s gravity pulling at them in every direction?


Hey look! It’s a montage of adorable astronauts engaging in hilarious space stuff in zero gravity. Look at them throwing bananas, playing Bowie songs, drinking floating juice balls, and generally having a gay old time in the weightlessness of deep space. It’s a camera inside a ball of water, you won’t believe what happens next! Or whatever it was they told you to get you to click that video.

Space isn’t all that far away, in fact, it’s likely closer than the next big city over. We have an equation to calculate gravitational pull between objects in space. It’s this little monster right here. It’s the “r” at the bottom we’re interested in here. When it’s a small value, like the short 370 km above your head there’s no remarkable difference between being on the space station or being on the surface. In fact, our beloved astronauts experience about 90% of the Earth’s gravity.

So why are they floating around so effortlessly in a most peculiar way? Shouldn’t they fall to the bottom of the space station? Shouldn’t the whole space station crash to the ground. Quickly, to the internet for our dramatic and creepy twilight zone style ending when we realize that the book was actually titled “How to cook forty humans!”. We have to tell someone!

According to our math those astronauts aren’t floating, they’re falling. THEY’RE FALLING.
And roll credits…So, the real twist was that NASA knew this all along. What looks like zero gravity is actually weightlessness. And you can get weightlessness whenever you’re falling.

You know that feeling when you crest a hill on a rollercoaster, or just as the elevator starts moving down? That’s you experiencing decreased weight. Jump out of an airplane, and you’ll experience seconds or even a minute of weightlessness before you have to open the chute. But the Earth moving towards you too rapidly for a little dirt-and-rock-cuddle-spooning time reminds you that this is falling, not flying.

Astronauts are orbiting Earth at a speed of 28,000 kilometers per hour, completing one spin around the planet every 90 minutes. As the astronauts accelerate towards our planet, the curvature of the Earth falls away from them – so they never actually slam into a horrible fiery twisted metal pancake of death.

Imagine there was a tower 370 km high. If you jumped off the top of the tower, you’d fall to the ground, near the base of the tower with a splat. Now, imagine if you jumped sideways off the tower. You might land a few kilometers away from the base of the tower. But still hit the ground. Now, imagine if you could run sideways at 28,000 km/h and you leap off the side of the tower. You’d still be falling, but the Earth is falling away at exactly the same rate, so you never actually hit the ground.

Despite years of training, many astronauts get motion sickness when they first arrive in orbit, and it can take a few days for them to become accustomed to the sensation.… And nobody judges them because they have the giant brass ones required to go into space in the first place.

Zero Gravity Flight
Stephen Hawking, weightless (courtesy Zero Gravity Corporation)

NASA has developed a special aircraft to help astronauts get experience with weightlessness. It’s called the KC 135, it flies in the emperor of barfolpolis-inducing parabolas, and has the nickname “The Vomit Comet”. At the top of each parabola, the passengers of the KC 135 get to experience a few seconds of weightlessness before gravity catches up with them again and they fall down on the floor of the aircraft, followed with the experience of double gravity on the bottom of the parabola.

Then it’s upchuck city, or everyone takes a few moments to talk to ralph on the big white phone, or has a brief episode of the Technicolor-face-shouts-double-rainbarf across the sky.

What does it mean? What I’m saying is the vomit flows like a river.

In fact, there is no place you could go in the entire Universe where you could be in true zero gravity. Ever. At all. None. As we discussed in a previous episode, you’re under the influence of gravity of every single atom in the observable Universe. Without the Earth or the Sun here, you’d start falling into the center of the Milky Way. Or maybe into the Virgo Supercluster.

We’re all falling all the time. Fortunately we’re stuck to a giant ball which gives us a reference point where everything falls at the same rate we do including our atmosphere and lunch, both prior to and post consumption.

To best illustrate our point, I’m going to turn to Douglas Adams. He said in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series: “the knack of flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” Do you want to experience true weightlessness? Would you be willing to go to orbit and give it a try?

Will You Float Away on Jan. 4th? Nope!

When I first heard we were all going to float in the air at 9:47 a.m. PST on January 4th, 2015 I laughed, figuring this latest Internet rumor would prove too silly to spread very far. Boy, was I wrong.  This week the bogus claim has already been shared over a million times on Facebook. Now I’m being asked if it’s true.  It all started on December 15th when the Daily Buzz Live, famous for fake news, published this tweet purportedly from NASA:

Well-crafted but fake tweet created by Daily Buzz Live. Credit: Daily Buzz Live
Well-crafted but fake tweet created by Daily Buzz Live. Credit: Daily Buzz Live

Sure looks real. Even has a cool, doomsday-flavored hashtag #beready. The story attributes the prediction to British astronomy popularizer Patrick Moore, who must be chuckling in his grave because he passed away in 2012. The story goes on.  A rare planetary alignment of Jupiter and Pluto “will mean that the combined gravitational force of the two planets would exert a stronger tidal pull, temporarily counteracting the Earth’s own gravity and making people virtually weightless.”

But when it comes down to it, Zero Gravity Day is just a lot of warmed-over hoo-ha. Let’s sort out what’s fact and what’s fancy in this claim.

Sir Patrick Moore, one of the world's greatest astronomy popularizers. He wrote more than 70 books and was the host of the long-running BBC TV series "The Sky at Night".
Sir Patrick Moore, one of the world’s greatest astronomy popularizers. He wrote more than 70 books and was the host of the long-running BBC TV series “The Sky at Night”.

True: Patrick Moore did make this claim in a BBC radio program on April 1, 1976 … as an April Fools Day joke! The article doesn’t bother to mention this significant detail. Ever so sly, Moore fibbed about the details of the purported alignment. Pluto was in Virgo and Jupiter in Pisces on that date, exactly opposite one another in the sky and as far out of alignment as possible. Gullible to suggestion, hundreds of listeners phoned in to the BBC  saying they’d experienced the decrease in gravity. One woman said she and 11 friends had been “wafted from their chairs and orbited gently around the room”.

Martin Wainwright, who edited the book The Guardian Book of April Fool’s Day (published by the British newspaper The Guardian), described Moore as the ideal presenter with his “weight delivery” lending an added “air of batty enthusiasm that only added to his credibility”. The Daily Buzz updated the joke and gave it even more credibility by wrapping it up in “bacon” — a fake NASA tweet.

False: Jupiter and Pluto will not be in alignment on January 4th. Pluto is hidden the solar glare in Sagittarius at the moment, while Jupiter shines nearly halfway across the zodiac in Leo. Far, far apart.

False: Planetary alignments will not make you weightless. Not even if all the planets and Sun aligned simultaneously. While the gravity of a place is Jupiter is HUGE and will crush you if you could find a surface to stand on, the distance between Earth and Jupiter (and all the other planets for that matter) is enormous. This waters down gravity in a big way. Jupiter tugs on you personally with the same gravitational force as a compact car three feet (1-meter) away. As for Pluto, it’s almost 60 times smaller than Jupiter with a gravitational reach that can only be described as virtually ZERO.

The Moon is by far the dominant extraterrestrial gravity tractor among the planets and moons of the Solar System because it’s relatively close to Earth. According to Phil Plait, author of the Bad Astronomer blog: “Even if you add all of the planets together, they pull on you with a force less than 2% of that of the Moon.”

Total solar eclipse in 1999. The alignment of the nearby Moon and massive Sun, the weightiest body in the Solar System by far, didn't cause anyone to float off the ground. To my knowledge. Credit: Luc  Viatour
Total solar eclipse in 1999. The alignment of the nearby Moon and massive Sun, the weightiest body in the Solar System by far, didn’t cause anyone to float off the ground. To my knowledge. Credit: Luc Viatour

The Sun also has a significant gravitational effect on Earth, but when was the last time you heard of people floating in the air during a total solar eclipse? If our strongest gravitational neighbors can’t loft you off your feet then don’t look to Jupiter and Pluto. Not that I wish this wouldn’t happen as it would provide a fitting physical aspect to what for many is a spiritual phenomenon.

There are countless claims on the Internet that alignments of comets, planets and fill-in-the-blanks produce earthquakes, deadly meteor storms, bad juju and even endless hiccups. It’s all pseudoscientific hogwash. Either deliberately made up by to lead you astray or because someone hasn’t checked the facts and simply passes on what they’ve heard. The stuff spreads like a virus, wasting our time and bandwidth and distracting our attention from the real beauty and bizarreness of the cosmos.

How to stop it? Critical thinking. If this skill were at the top of the list of subjects taught in high school, we’d live on a very different planet. Maybe I’m dreaming. Maybe we’ll always be gullible to snake-oil claims. But I’d like to believe that a basic knowledge of science coupled with the ability to analyze a claim with a critical eye will go a long way toward extinguishing bogus scientific claims before they spread like wildfire.

Come this Sunday at 9:47 a.m. PST allow me to suggest that instead of waiting to float off the ground, tell your family and friends about the amazing Full Wolf Moon that will shine down that evening from the constellation Gemini. If it’s magic you’re looking for, a a walk in winter moonlight might do the trick.

Sonic-Powered Levitation Allows for Zero-G Drug Research

It’s not special effects: researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois have developed a way to cancel out the effects of gravity, allowing liquids to be held without containers. The effect is created using sound waves emitted by an acoustic levitator — an instrument designed by NASA for simulating microgravity.

Watch the video. It’s the coolest thing you’ll see all week.

This accomplishes more than just a neat effect; by keeping liquids in place without the need for a physical container, pharmaceutical research can be performed while the drugs are still in their purest, “amorphous” state.

“Most drugs on the market are crystalline – they don’t get fully absorbed by the body and thus we aren’t getting the most efficient use out of them,” said Yash Vaishnav, Argonne Senior Manager for Intellectual Property Development and Commercialization.

When solutions come in contact with the interior surfaces of their containers, evaporation takes place, which can lead to crystallization. In order to find a way to hold liquids without anything coming in contact with them (a tricky task while under the effect of Earth’s pesky gravity) ANL X-ray physicist Chris Benmore looked to NASA’s acoustic levitator.

Using two sets of sound waves emitted at 22khz and precisely aimed at each other, a “standing wave” is established at their center. The resulting acoustic force is strong enough to counter the downward tug of gravity at certain points (at least as far as droplets of liquid are concerned.)

The liquid drugs can then be studied without the problem of crystallization, making this technological parlor trick a powerful analytical tool for pharmaceutical researchers. The ultimate goal is to learn how to reduce the amount of a particular drug but still retain the desired effects — with less of the undesired ones.

Read more here on the Argonne National Lab site.

The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’sOffice of Science.

Space Travel Is Bad For Your Eyes

Microgravity — or “zero-g” as it’s sometimes called — is not a natural state for the human body to live in for prolonged periods of time. But that is what today’s astronauts are often expected to do, whether while on expedition aboard Space Station or during a future voyage to the Moon or Mars. A host of physical issues can result from the space environment, from bone loss and muscle atrophy to the risks associated from increased exposure to radiation.

Now, there’s another downside to long-term life in orbit: eye and brain damage.

A team of radiologists led by Dr. Larry A. Kramer from The University of Texas Medical School at Houston performed MRIs on 27 astronauts, measuring in each the shape and thickness of the rear of the eyes, optic nerve, optic nerve sheath and pituitary gland.

In 7 of the 27 astronauts flattening of the backs of the eyes was noted, and enlargement of the optic nerve was detected in nearly all of them — 26 out of 27.

In addition, four exhibited deformation of the pituitary gland.

The optic nerve. (NIH)

The changes to the eyes and optic nerves are similar to what are typically seen in those suffering from idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH), a disorder characterized by increased pressure within the skull. Symptoms typically include headache, dizziness and nausea, and if left untreated it can produce permanent vision loss through optic nerve damage.

“The MRI findings revealed various combinations of abnormalities following both short- and long-term cumulative exposure to microgravity also seen with idiopathic intracranial hypertension,” said Dr. Kramer. “Microgravity-induced intracranial hypertension represents a hypothetical risk factor and a potential limitation to long-duration space travel.”

Chief of flight medicine at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Dr. William J. Tarver, noted that although no astronaut has been kept from flight duties as a result of such risks, NASA will continue to “closely monitor the situation” and has placed the potential danger “high on its list of human risks.”

The team’s paper was accepted into the journal Radiology on Feb. 1.

“Orbital and Intracranial Effects of Microgravity: Findings at 3-T MR Imaging.” Collaborating with Dr. Kramer were Ashot Sargsyan, M.D., Khader M. Hasan, Ph.D., James D. Polk, D.O., and Douglas R. Hamilton, M.D., Ph.D.

Update Oct. 24, 2013: Further investigation by researchers at Houston Methodist and Johnson Space Center have shown more evidence of long-term eye damage after just two weeks in orbit. Read more.

Playing With Water… in Space!

Expedition 30 astronaut and chemical engineer Don Pettit continues his ongoing “Science off the Sphere” series with this latest installment, in which he demonstrates some of the peculiar behaviors of thin sheets of water in microgravity. Check it out — you might be surprised how water behaves when freed from the bounds of gravity (and put under the command of a cosmic chemist!)

See more Science off the Sphere episodes here.