NASA Is Getting Serious About Space Hibernation

Oct 13, 2014

Image: SpaceWorks

By Jordan Pearson

Trips to other worlds aren’t short, and packing enough food and supplies to keep astronauts alive for months at a time is a major challenge. One proposed solution? Deep sleep, or, more accurately, an induced state of hypothermia resulting in torpor, a kind of hibernation. You know, like bears do.

Except in this case, NASA-funded researchers plan on inducing torpor with RhinoChill, a device that uses invasive tubes to shoot cooling liquid up the nose and into the base of the brain.

When it comes to space travel, “anytime you introduce humans, it gets an order of magnitude or two more challenging,” says Bobby Braun, NASA’s former chief technologist. This is especially true when it comes to eventually shipping people to Mars.

Flying people to another planet poses a ton of technical and logistical challenges, which NASA is addressing with innovations like the Z-2 space suit. One of the largest hurdles is figuring out how to fit a crew on a spaceship with enough food, entertainment, and amenities to last for the estimated 180-day journey to Mars without going over budget.


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39 comments on “NASA Is Getting Serious About Space Hibernation

  • @OP – One of the largest hurdles is figuring out how to fit a crew on a spaceship with enough food, entertainment, and amenities to last for the estimated 180-day journey to Mars without going over budget.

    There is an alternative answer to that question!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variable_Specific_Impulse_Magnetoplasma_Rocket#Mars_in_39_Days

    In order to conduct a manned trip to “Mars in just 39 days”,[34][35][36] the VASIMR will need the kind of electrical power that can only be delivered by nuclear propulsion (specifically the nuclear electric type)



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  • One proposed solution? Deep sleep, or, more accurately, an induced state of hypothermia resulting in torpor, a kind of hibernation. You know, like bears do.

    I suppose they could breed genetically modified Brown Bears as astronauts!



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  • 4
    Cairsley says:

    VASIMR seems to be suitable for transporting people and goods from the orbit of one heavenly body to that of another, assuming there is a docking platform in orbit at each term of the journey and a shuttle service for conveying people and goods there from the surface. Until the kind of satellite at which a VASIMR vessel could dock has been built in orbit around Mars or the Moon, along with a shuttle service, such a vessel does not seem appropriate. Initially at least, this research into induced hibernation may be the way to go, and even when some infrastructure has been built on and around Mars, the Moon, and farther afield and VASIMR is in use, induced hibernation in passengers (of whatever species) may still be a worthwhile way of cutting down on expenses and psychological distress.



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  • I do not understand what are these findings for? American people give NASA milions and milions of dollars to play whit some ridiculous ideas? Sending people to Mars! hahaaah. Any biological laboratory in USA could make this findings about hibernation of humans. I do not know if people in america are pissed off because their money are used to finance somebody caprice, and not in some real and practical needs of society. They always have money for army and rockets but not for better life for people, for health, and similar, … people have to raise money for those who have lost everithing in tornados, or during the flood, but for wars and ridiculous ideas there is always ready money from the budget.



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  • Cairsley Oct 13, 2014 at 7:10 pm

    VASIMR seems to be suitable for transporting people and goods from the orbit of one heavenly body to that of another, assuming there is a docking platform in orbit at each term of the journey and a shuttle service for conveying people and goods there from the surface.

    That is correct. VASIMR (and all ion drives) are for interplanetary travel, not launch to orbit.

    Until the kind of satellite at which a VASIMR vessel could dock has been built in orbit around Mars or the Moon, along with a shuttle service, such a vessel does not seem appropriate.

    From Earth, there are already shuttles/ space-planes, which are planned or near operational for launch to low earth orbit(X37B, Virgin Galactic Space-ship One, Skylon, SpaceX’s Falcon 9).

    VASIMR vessel could dock has been built in orbit around Mars or the Moon,

    A landing craft would be required for the Moon, or for passengers and return from Mars, but for cargo to Mars, or cargo return to Earth, a heat shield and parachute would do. One option for Mars would be to put a base on one of its moons and use local materials for construction and resources.

    Artificially induced hibernation could well be required for longer duration trips, but it is worth noting, that many animals are much more suited to such activities than humans are.



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  • Modesti Oct 14, 2014 at 3:32 am

    I do not know if people in america are pissed off because their money are used to finance somebody caprice, and not in some real and practical needs of society. They always have money for army and rockets but not for better life for people, for health, and similar, … people have to raise money for those who have lost everithing in tornados, or during the flood, but for wars and ridiculous ideas there is always ready money from the budget.

    These sorts of claims are not new.
    They have been made about every bit of space-research and development which led to SAT NAVs, weather forecasting, digital cameras and TV, hurricane warnings, storm warnings, flood monitoring, mobile phones and disaster co-ordination, crop and pollution monitoring, environmental planning, and numerous technical innovations and spin-offs!



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  • I think there’s much too much to do to rectify the mess we’ve made of things on Earth for us to be gallivanting about in space; let machines do that.

    As I used to say to our children: if you want to go out, you’ve got to clean up your bedroom first.



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  • Olgun, I agree with Your statment in general. Somehow I supose this sort of research could easily do some private laboratory or agency, because I do not see how national strategy can be to put a people (americans) on Mars. If it is for tourism purposes, than wealthy american who are interested in such a tourism should pay such research, and not ALL citizens. Research that are financed from a private subjects wold bring the same benefit, isn’t it? 🙂



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  • Modesti Oct 14, 2014 at 7:08 am

    Somehow I supose this sort of research could easily do some private laboratory or agency, because I do not see how national strategy can be to put a people (americans) on Mars. If it is for tourism purposes, than wealthy american who are interested in such a tourism should pay such research, and not ALL citizens.

    Despite any news-media hype, I don’t think there is any prospect of tourists on Mars in the next few decades! Any bases on Mars should be for scientific research, and even then most of the investigations should be carried out by robots, as at present.



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  • I think you are comparing Apples and Oranges. The cost of NASA is a drop in the bucket compared to what the US spends on (cough) “Defense”. There was a story a few days ago about how the US bought a fleet of planes, refurbished them, and gave them to the Afghans. The Afghans never used them; not even once. They eventually shredded them… I didn’t know you could do that with planes but apparently you can, they broke them down into scrap for the value of the metal:

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/10/13/1336398/-Arming-our-Allies-Do-we-need-a-receipt

    That’s half a Billion dollars just flushed down the toilet. How many homes in the US could have been rebuilt for that? That is where we need to focus, if we didn’t waste billions of dollars on the military we could fund all the things you mention and still have money left over for cool NASA research.

    We need real research, the kind where you don’t have a predetermined end in mind. It’s that kind of research that gave us the transistor for example, the technology that enables computers and smart devices.



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  • Red Dog Oct 14, 2014 at 11:54 am

    The cost of NASA is a drop in the bucket compared to what the US spends on (cough) “Defense”.

    There was a story a few days ago about how the US bought a fleet of planes, refurbished them, and gave them to the Afghans. The Afghans never used them; not even once. . . . . . . . .

    That’s half a Billion dollars just flushed down the toilet. How many homes in the US could have been rebuilt for that? That is where we need to focus, if we didn’t waste billions of dollars on the military we could fund all the things you mention and still have money left over for cool NASA research.

    The cost of foolish and destructive military adventures is vastly greater than anything spent on NASA.

    http://www.globalresearch.ca/us-wars-in-afghanistan-iraq-to-cost-6-trillion/5350789

    The decade-long American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would end up costing as much as $6 trillion, the equivalent of $75,000 for every American household, calculates the prestigious Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

    According to the Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government 2013 report, this accounted for roughly 20 per cent of the total amount added to the US national debt between 2001 and 2012.

    According to the report, the US “has already paid $260 billion in interest on the war debt,” and future interest payments would amount to trillions of dollars.



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  • Has this fundamental obstacle been considered:
    Humans in space are exposed to radiation from mainly the solar wind and general cosmic radiation. Add to this the fission power source for a VASIMR motor! There is no feasible shielding to eliminate this. One effect of radiation is that cells die due to radiation damage to their machinery. The dead cells dissolve and the contents are released to the blood stream. If the dose rate is low there is no problem, as taking care of dead cells is business as usual for the body, and cells can be replaced. (Long term effects such as risk for cancer later in life remain, though.) However, if the radiation dose is sudden, and high enough, the accumulation of dead cell content will overwhelm and poison the body. There are also symptoms from organs which are particularly sensitive, such as the gastrointestinal tract. This is known as radiation sickness:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acute_radiation_syndrome
    The dose for this to occur is .35 Gy and above, doses of 2-6 Gy can be deadly without treatment.
    A space traveler put in hibernation will have the mechanisms for coping with radiation reduced in proportion to the intentional lowering of the metabolism. The effect of him/her being woken up from hibernation is that the radiation dose accumulated over the hibernation period will appear as having been absorbed recently. In order not to risk radiation sickness the dose absorbed must be limited to something like .35 Gy. This puts a serious and unavoidable limit to the hibernation strategy! NASA serious? NOT, methinks…



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  • G Oct 14, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    Has this fundamental obstacle been considered:
    Humans in space are exposed to radiation from mainly the solar wind and general cosmic radiation.

    Humans have already lived on MIR and the ISS for much longer times than this fast voyage would take.

    Add to this the fission power source for a VASIMR motor! There is no feasible shielding to eliminate this.

    Any nuclear drive would be on a long boom quite a distance away from the crew cabin, in a similar way to the way Radioisotope thermoelectric generators with only a small amount of shielding, are kept away from the instruments on space probes.



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  • Furthermore an RTG’s alpha radiation can easily be shielded because it can’t even penetrate skin. Not a valid comparison to a nuclear drive.



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  • Well la-di-da. Not where I come I come from guv!!!

    Only joking. Of course it is.

    My best friend, for a long while, was an Armenian from Istanbul whose English was good but not that good. He used to mix his phrases up to the point of being Delboy hilarious. He also had the Turkish and Russian knack of mixing his V’s and W’s. I had an accident once in my Ford Capri (yes! Same colour as Delboys) and we had to appear in court because the driver of the VW beetle, that pulled out on us, was prosecuted for dangerous driving. We jumped on a train and all the way to court my friend seemed very nervous and kept asking me about the other car. ” It was a VW right”? Over and over again, obviously worried about showing himself up with his bad English. When his time came to give evidence it all went well and then the final question came about the make of the car. “Oh! By the way. Can you please tell the court the make of the defendants car”. My friend pulled his shoulders back and proudly announced his well rehearsed ” Woxhall Weaver”. I nearly fell of my chair. I was up next and I just about pulled myself together until the point the barrister looked at me suspiciously and asked the first question “Do YOU know the make of the car the defendant was driving” to which the judge, stenographer and me went off sounding like leaky balloons. I got through it but the judge didn’t help because his shoulders were going up and down all the time as he tried not to laugh out loud. The barrister held it together because he was annoyed that my friends evidence was useless.



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  • I hope I made this distinction clear: A low dose rate in an operating metabolism is tolerable due to the repair mechanisms, while the same fast dose will cause sickness. People in granite buildings get something like 1 Gy per year from the Uranium of the granite and don’t get sick, while the same fast dose would lead to sickness. For hibernating organisms the repair mechanisms are subdued just as the metabolism as a whole.

    Radioisotope thermoelectric generators give far too little power to supply a VASIMR, by a factor of 1000. And besides, they are 100% shielded since they work through pure alpha decay. The power source for VASIMR can only be a fission reactor, and the gamma and neutron radiations are only reduced by boom length squared, not eliminated.

    I can also add the risk of solar flares during any kind of interplanetary manned mission. Travellers awake can orient the spacecraft for maximum shielding and take shelter to minimize the dose, but if hibernating they are at a loss.



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  • Leon Oct 14, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    Furthermore an RTG’s alpha radiation can easily be shielded because it can’t even penetrate skin. Not a valid comparison to a nuclear drive.

    The key element of the design is the long boom, as then only a small disc is required as a shield to between the engine and the crew to put the crew in its shadow.

    There are also ideas of using long tow cables.



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  • G Oct 14, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Radioisotope thermoelectric generators give far too little power to supply a VASIMR, by a factor of 1000. And besides, they are 100% shielded since they work through pure alpha decay.

    That is correct. RTGs are used for powering probes and the Mars Curiosity Rover.
    My point about RTGs was keeping them, their electric fields, and their radiation, away from the electronics on unmanned probes.
    Voyager 1 has three radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) mounted on a boom.

    The power source for VASIMR can only be a fission reactor,

    VASIMR can be powered by solar (in the inner Solar System), fission and potentially fusion. A small Solar powered version is due for testing boosting the orbit of the ISS.

    and the gamma and neutron radiations are only reduced by boom length squared, not eliminated.

    Placing a lead disc or a large fuel tank between the engine and the crew would reduce radiation from the engine.

    I can also add the risk of solar flares during any kind of interplanetary manned mission.

    This would be a serious risk, and some shelter surrounded by something like water tanks would be required.

    Travellers awake can orient the spacecraft for maximum shielding and take shelter to minimize the dose,

    You make a good point about the slow metabolism being an obstruction to bodily repair.

    but if hibernating they are at a loss.

    Some automated orientation or shielding system would be needed to protect sleeping crew.

    Interplanetary craft would need to be big and powerful to cope with these various human requirements. – Much less so for robot missions.



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  • Stafford Gordon Oct 15, 2014 at 8:04 am

    Oh, come on folks, we haven’t even fully evolved as Earth dwellers yet.

    Some never will evolve into rational life forms, but the more scientifically advanced, can’t wait for millennia, in the hope that those fixed on going backwards, will catch up!



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  • I take your points Alan, but I was thinking of us as a species, not as individuals.

    And it’ll take more than mere millennia for us to achieve our full potential as homo sapiens.

    Or evolve into another species; a fascinating thought.



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  • I think its wrong and counterproductive to critisise on evolutionary terms Alan. Hints at eugenics. I feel its more a wiring/chemical problem and the perception of reality. I have been through a full blown depression and know all too well what it is like to see things in a completely different way to what I was used to. Its like those 3d stereograms. All thats needed is to refocus, which is what it took for me to return to “Normal”……..But once you acquire the knack to shift focus it is hard to get rid of. Fascinating nonetheless…



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  • Olgun Oct 15, 2014 at 8:39 am

    I think its wrong and counterproductive to critisise on evolutionary terms Alan. Hints at eugenics. I feel its more a wiring/chemical problem and the perception of reality.

    It was a “tongue in cheek” comment.

    It is more about individual and cultural development. – more memes than genes!



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  • G Oct 14, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    Humans in space are exposed to radiation from mainly the solar wind and general cosmic radiation. Add to this the fission power source for a VASIMR motor! There is no feasible shielding to eliminate this.

    As far as shielding against background radiation is concerned , there are various ideas.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_threat_from_cosmic_rays#Shielding

    Several strategies are being studied for ameliorating the effects of this radiation hazard for planned human interplanetary spaceflight:

    Spacecraft can be constructed out of hydrogen-rich plastics, rather than aluminum.[42]
    Material shielding has been considered:
    Liquid hydrogen, which would be brought along as fuel in any case, tends to give relatively good shielding, while producing relatively low levels of secondary radiation. Therefore, the fuel could be placed so as to act as a form of shielding around the crew. However, as fuel is consumed by the craft, the crew’s shielding decreases.
    Water, which is necessary to sustain life, could also contribute to shielding. But it too is consumed during the journey unless waste products are utilized.[43]
    Asteroids could serve to provide shielding.[44][45]
    Magnetic deflection of charged radiation particles and/or electrostatic repulsion is a hypothetical alternative to pure conventional mass shielding under investigation. In theory, power requirements for the case of a 5 meter torus drop from an excessive 10 GW for a simple pure electrostatic shield (too discharged by space electrons) to a moderate 10 kilowatts (kW) by using a hybrid design.[40] However, such complex active shielding is untried, with workability and practicalities more uncertain than material shielding.



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