Science fiction no more — we will soon be able to send people into space for months, even years (or possibly thousands of years) at a time with new technology just publicly introduced by a company called Spaceworks. NASA is also promoting Spacework’s fully functional hibernation chamber as a viable technology.
By placing people in a state of hibernation, slowing their heart rates, respiratory rates, and other important bodily functions utilizing what medical doctors call, “therapeutic hypothermia,” people will travel extremely long distances in space. This would be the first time deep-space travel would be conceivable outside of black budget government projects and sci-fi movies churned out by Hollywood.
The technology, presented by Dr. John Bradford, SpaceWorks’ President and COO, is featured in a Sony Press Release regarding the new Passengers movie – and his work isn’t just being featured in the movies. Bradford says that his company expects to have a fully functioning “torpor-enabled transfer habitat” for human exploration of space by 2018.
The movie Passengers will feature a real-life version of space exploration wherein passengers put to ‘sleep’ in a stasis chamber will travers the universe, and look for a new home on another star, but this seemingly outlandish image represents a very real technology which is already being developed.
NASA is also featuring the technology. You can see a hatch-view of the habitat, here. NASA.gov states,
“This new and innovative habitat design is capable of cycling the crew through inactive, non-cryonic torpor sleep states for the duration of the inspace mission segments. Under this effort, SpaceWorks will (i) Expand the Phase I medical team to address key challenges identified in the initial effort, (ii) Examine key habitat engineering aspects to further explore and refine design and identify further potential performance gains, (iii) initiate validation studies with leading medical researchers to understand the effects of prolonged hypothermia, and (iv) Consider the technology’s impact on alternate exploration missions (Mars moons, asteroid belt, Jovian and Saturn system, etc.).”
The process works by utilizing a medical treatment normally relegated for extreme medical cases like traumatic brain injury or cardiac arrest, so that doctors can slow physiological functions down enough to work on a patient, often surgically, when seconds count. Therapeutic hypothermia cools the body temperature to between 32 and 34 degrees Celsius (normal body temperature is 37C). This cooling slows both the heart rate and blood pressure.
When used in a medical environment, the body is normally only kept in ‘stasis’ for 24-48 hours, but with slight adjustments, scientists believe they can keep the body in a hypothermic state for months, or even years. There is already an indication that longer periods of stasis do relative little harm, as a Japanese man once survived in a hypothermic state for 24 hours after falling from a mountain ledge.
“There would be some robotic arms and monitoring systems taking care of [the passengers]. They’d have small transnasal tubes for the cooling and some warming systems as well, to bring them back from stasis,” Bradford explained in an interview. Another key difference between real-life stasis chambers and sci-fi versions will be the details of how the technology actually works.
As detailed in Digital Trends,
“Instead of a single period of stasis, crew members would have rolling periods of stasis, which would also offer a benefit in that someone would always be awake to respond to emergencies and perform monitoring tasks of other crew members still in stasis.
While stasis seems to be figured out, there are other issues that are not. One of the biggest is the long-term effects of low gravity, which can lead to a whole host of medical issues. Bradford and his team are working on methods to keep crew members “exercising” even during stasis: one potential solution being electrical stimulation — already used in physical therapy today.”
Interstellar space missions are now closer than ever, with animal testing planned for 2018, and a full roll-out for human passengers soon after.