Astronaut in hibernation in the image of Neurosetti
In the next fifteen years NASA, the Chinese space agency and SpaceX will take a new step in space exploration — sending the first manned space missions to Mars. However, this plan faces numerous challenges, including the distance that separates us from the «Red Planet». Even during opposition, when Mars and Earth are closest to each other, the distance is about 55 million kilometers. As a result of using conventional thrust systems, such as chemical rockets, the journey to Mars could take six to nine months, resulting in a mission time of about three years, including operations on the planet’s surface.
Such prolonged exposure to microgravity poses a number of problems for the human body, including exposure to solar and cosmic radiation. To address this issue, NASA is currently studying the possibility of reducing transition time and developing hibernation technologies, allowing the crew to sleep for most of the journey. Program NIAC NASA presented the project Studying Torpor in Animals for Space-health in Humans (STASH), which is a method of hibernation, developed by specialists from the California biotechnology firm Fauna Bio Inc.
There are areas of biotechnology that study the characteristics of mammals with the aim of developing new medicines for human health. One of such directions is the study of the phenotypes of wintering mammals and their application in the field of space exploration, to mitigate risks to the health of the crew. Prolonged stay in space presents special problems and research on MKS, including research by NASA’s twins, allows to evaluate the effect of microgravity on the human body. Among the consequences: muscle atrophy, weakening of bone tissue, negative effects on organs, vision, cardiovascular system and nervous system. In addition, the supply of space expeditions will take several months.
A solution to these problems could be the use of hibernation for crews during space travel. Such an approach would guarantee that by the time of arrival at Mars the crew would be in healthy condition and ready to conduct missions on the planet’s surface. Project STASH, developed jointly with BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado Boulder, represents a hibernation laboratory that will be used on the MKS. The experiment involves two cameras, where the worms will be located, and the environmental temperature will be reduced to 4 °C to induce hibernation.
The system will also be equipped with instruments that measure the animals’ metabolism in real time, controlling their oxygen consumption, body temperature and heart rhythm. One of the short-term goals of Project STASH is to study the scientific aspects of hibernation in microgravity conditions, including evaluating its ability to protect against loss of muscle and bone mass.
Medium-term tasks include testing bioactive molecules that could help space mission crews maintain health during long journeys. In the future, the hibernation system could become a key tool for future crewed space missions. The system will be equipped with advanced instruments capable of monitoring the metabolism, oxygen consumption, body temperature and heart rhythm of the animals in real time. Its developers, researchers in the field of hibernation, set themselves several goals.
Initially, this study is based on the scientific principles of hibernation in microgravity conditions to determine how effectively it protects the body from loss of bone and muscle mass. A more long-term perspective is the investigation of bioactive molecules capable of mimicking the genetic manifestations of hibernation, and the evaluation of methods to induce artificial hibernation. Ultimately, the team of scientists plans to develop hibernation technology, which can be applied in deep space.
As the leader of the project Kharkiv Sprenger and his colleagues note, understanding of hibernation and its potential for space flights is incomplete. Currently there is no infrastructure capable of conducting hibernation research in the space environment, and hibernation in microgravity conditions has not yet been studied in detail. Project STASH will be the first step on this path, which will allow laying the foundation for future research and development of hibernation systems for long space missions.
Having received financing to develop the first phase of the project, the team of scientists prepares to overcome the first obstacles. As the project participants note, research, conducted with the help of the STASH hibernation system, will become an important first step in obtaining fundamental knowledge about the potential of hibernation to protect the health of astronauts in space. This knowledge will be useful for the development of pharmaceutical drugs and future infrastructure capable of providing support to astronauts capable of hibernating during long-term interplanetary missions.