Affordable space travel might soon be feasible in the future. In an effort to find ways to dramatically reduce the cost of manned expeditions to Mars, a recent study backed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) suggests putting astronauts in a state of deep sleep, known as “therapeutic torpor”.
The idea somewhat draws from the practice of hibernation, which allows animals to conserve energy during the winter, when weather conditions make it difficult to collect food. In theory, a similar strategy can be employed by humans to slow down their metabolic function, thereby reducing their immediate need for food and water.
In fact, medical torpor is currently used to care for trauma patients, although the period of inactive stasis is limited to about a week. Traveling to Mars, however, is a 350 million mile journey, taking about 180 days to complete.
Thus, to explore the feasibility of this idea, the U.S. space agency is collaborating with the aerospace engineering firm, SpaceWorks Enterprises to design a torpor-inducing Mars transfer habitat. The project is currently being funded by NASA NIAC.
Last week, SpaceWorks Enterprises engineer, Mark Schaffer, presented the details of the procedure at the 65th International Astronautical Congress in Toronto, Canada. A stasis-reliant flight to the Red Planet would theoretically employ RhinoChill, which is currently used to induce therapeutic hypothermia in cardiac arrest patients waiting for proper treatment.
The system works by pumping coolant into the nose to reduce body temperature until a state of inactivity is reached – normally between 89°F and 93°F. Astronauts will also be placed in a spinning habitat to counter bone loss and be fed intravenously until their landing.
The economic benefits of torpor are promising. If all goes according to plan, crews can travel to space in smaller ships, as a result of a reduced need for amenities and resources. In fact, a study predicts that necessary baggage can be cut down by almost 50%, from 400 tons to 220 tons. Further evidence and studies, however, are still needed before the system can be considered a viable and economically sound option.