A trope in science fiction is for advanced space missions to use suspended animation for long space missions. In fiction, they usually assume that suspended animation stops aging. This will be full on cryonics. In reality, we can safely induce a hibernation like state where metabolic processes are slowed. Minimal nutrients and water would be needed. People would still have feeding tubes and other life support. However, the supplies needed for long missions would be greatly reduced. This could also be a pathway to deeper hibernation on space missions and heading towards cryonics for space.
A NASA NIAC study will examine using induced hibernation (aka topor) in hibernating and non-hibernating animals in a module on the International Space Station. Previous NASA funded studies have determined that if induced hibernation could be used for most of the duration of a human trip to Mars then the mass of the mission could be 15 tons instead of 40 tons less and/or the crew size could be doubled. Human medical patients have already been kept cooled in topor-like state for 14 days at time. However, NASA needs to operationalize this medical capability by testing it on animals and then on humans in space.
There are also supposed to be expanded Sleepworks human topor trials on Earth in 2024.
Sleepworks will test out the systems on animals that they will want to use on humans. They will want to provide food, water and recover waste. The future plan would be be to have half of the crew in 14 day hibernation the other half doing work and then switching the crews.
Sleepworks also would have astronauts in the topor sleep chambers spun around to simulate gravity. This would normally be very uncomfortable but in a deep-sleeping like state the astronauts will be able to maintain physical conditioning in low gravity.
The European Space Agency has also been studying inducing topor into animals on Earth. Scientists have used chemicals to induce topor on non-hibernating animals like rats since about 2000. The topor state has been found to protect mammals from radiation.
The use of non-model organisms in medical research is an expanding field that has already made a significant impact on human health. Insights gleaned from the study of unique mammalian traits are being used to develop novel therapeutic agents. The remarkable phenotype of mammalian hibernation confers unique physiologic and metabolic benefits that are being actively investigated for potential human health applications on Earth. These benefits also hold promise for mitigating many of the physical and mental health risks of space travel. The essential feature of hibernation is an energy-conserving state called torpor, which involves an active and often deep reduction in metabolic rate from baseline homeostasis.
Additional potential benefits include the preservation of muscle and bone despite prolonged immobilization and protection against radiation injury. Despite this remarkable potential, the space-based infrastructure needed to study torpor in laboratory rodents does not currently exist, and hibernation in microgravity has never been studied. There is a critical gap in our understanding of hibernation and its potential applications for human spaceflight. Researchers propose to remedy this situation through the design and implementation of STASH, a novel microgravity hibernation laboratory for use aboard the ISS. Some unique and necessary design features include the ability to maintain STASH at temperatures as low as 4°C, adjustable recirculation of animal chamber air enabling the measurement of metabolism via oxygen consumption, and measurement of real-time total ventilation, body temperature, and heart rate.
The STASH unit will also feature animal chamber sizes that will accommodate the expected variety of future hibernating and non-hibernating species, boosting its applicability to a variety of studies on the ISS by enabling real-time physiological measurements. The STASH unit is being designed in collaboration with BioServe Space Technologies to be integrated into the Space Automated Biological Laboratory (SABL) unit. This will allow for the achievable and practical application of this research to advance our understanding of both hibernation and mammalian physiology in space.
The short-term goals of the STASH project are novel investigations into the basic science of hibernation in a microgravity environment, laying the foundation for application of its potential benefits to human health. These include determining whether hibernation provides the expected protection against bone and muscle loss.
The medium-term goals of the project begin developing translational applications of hibernation research. These include using STASH both for testing bioactive molecules that mimic the transcriptional signatures of hibernation and for evaluating methods of inducing synthetic torpor for their ability to provide similar protection.
As a long-term goal, during a crewed mission to Mars, human synthetic torpor could act as a relevant countermeasure that would change everything for space exploration, mitigating or eliminating every hazard included in NASA’s RIDGE acronym for the hazards of space travel:
Isolation and Confinement,
Distance from Earth,
Gravity Fields, and
Research performed using STASH will be an essential first step toward acquiring fundamental knowledge about the ability of hibernation to lessen the health risks of space. This knowledge will inform development of both biomimetic drug countermeasures and the future infrastructure needed to support torpor-enabled human astronauts engaged in interplanetary missions. They feel that STASH is the epitome of the high-risk, high-reward projects for which NIAC was established.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.