Interstellar, Avatar, Alienand 2001: A Space Odyssey… Four masterpieces of cinema, each made in a different decade, all use the same premise: human hibernation. It is a choice ingredient of films depicting future exploration of the cosmos – for most of us, the stuff of sci-fi. However, Angelique Van Ombergen, head of life sciences at the European Space Agency (ESA), makes it clear: “While for many people hibernation is science fiction, our approach is truly scientific.” In a few points, the neuroscientist outlines the roadmap: “First, determine our needs. Observe what hibernating animals do that would be likely to help us. Determine what non-hibernating animals can do and how that might be applicable to humans. Finally, implement the associated technologies. The process has begun. There is still a long way to go. But it is essential to work in this direction, as the promise is so great.”
Huge, even. Hibernation seems tailor-made to help humans explore outer space. Developed by many animal species to cope with the scarcity of resources in winter, it offers potential answers to three of the main challenges of space travel. First, the hope of drastically reducing onboard mass. “This is one of the obsessions of the space agencies,” said Alexander Chouker, an intensive care specialist at the University Hospital of Munich and co-leader of the group of 20 experts on hibernation at ESA. “Because it affects the size and power of the spacecraft, but also because each kilo on board costs more than 10,000 euros. Imagine what this means for a crew going to Mars, a two-and-a-half-year mission. But animals that hibernate stop eating and drinking, and no longer produce waste. That’s a godsend.”
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Another constant concern of space agencies is protecting astronauts’ muscles and bones. “Gravity alone imposes an action on our muscles,” noted Fabrice Bertille, from the Hubert Curien Interdisciplinary Institute in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, whose research on bear hibernation is supported by the ESA. “In the International Space Station, in microgravity, despite continuous exercise, astronauts face serious problems of muscle wasting, and when they come back, they are at risk of bone fragility. In a more constrained environment and over a longer period of time, this can become critical. However, bears do not encounter these difficulties. They lose 15% of their muscle in the first month, then nothing.”
Finally, space holds an invisible, but pernicious danger: cosmic rays. On Earth, the magnetic field that surrounds our planet protects us from this radiation emitted by the sun and other stars. However, beyond a distance of 50,000 kilometers from the Earth’s surface, we are naked to the protons, ions and X-rays of the solar wind. It is out of the question to surround a vessel with a lead shell, as the weight would prevent it from flying. Other, lighter materials are being tested. But early experiments, conducted for NASA in the 1960s, and especially a more recent study conducted at the Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany, for ESA, have established that rats – a non-hibernating species, like us – that were artificially placed in a state of torpor were largely protected from ionizing radiationa likely effect of reduced cellular metabolism.
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