Astronauts on a months-long mission to Mars could be placed in suspended animation to reduce the physical and mental stress a lengthy space voyage could cause, says a leading specialist in hibernation.
Professor Vladyslav Vyazovskiy, an associate professor of neuroscience at Oxford University, has made a special study of sleep and its functions.
He says: ”Imagine you had to take a very long-haul flight to Mars, for example, and how much fuel, water supply, air you'd need to take along.
“If you were awake all the time, there are also huge implications for mental health, spending so much time in a highly confined environment - so it would be really advantageous to put the astronauts in a state of stasis.”
He says the phenomenon would be more akin to hibernation than sleep: "Hibernation is a fascinating biological phenomenon. Sometimes it is confused with sleep because when an animal is hibernating it looks like it is sleeping, but it's a fundamentally different state.”
Many mammals hibernate. Until recently it was thought that no primates – the group of mammals that includes humans – hibernated, but in 2013 research on lemurs in Madagascar revealed that they hibernate for seven months every winter.
Thats particularly interesting because Madagascar’s winters are not especially cold. The hibernating lemurs are particularly long-lived, surviving for up to 30 years in captivity.
Professor Vyazovskiy tells the Daily Telegraph that while hibernation can already be induced using drugs, many animals hibernate using natural processes and that research into how this process occurs could lead to a safer solution.
"Hibernation is a widespread phenomenon and many animals hibernate," said Prof Vyazovskiy.
“We know that some primates are able to. So I can't think what is special about humans that means they can't hibernate. We just need to find the secret.
"We can produce an artificial state of hibernation by administering drugs, but I don't think this is the most promising approach.
“We should learn from other animal species and how they trigger that process spontaneously - they know the trick but we have lost it for reasons we don't know yet."
Last year a team led by Samuel Tisherman, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, successfully put a human being in suspended animation – bringing the era of long-haul spaceflight that little bit closer.
A trip to Mars would take around seven months, depending on where Earth and Mars were in their orbits at the time of launch.
That’s not only longer than a standard stint on the International Space Station, but the exposure to radiation in interplanetary space would be far greater.
Astronauts in a state of hibernation would require far less heavy shielding, making the design of a future Mars-bound spacecraft far simpler.