Brussels, 04 Aug 2004
The idea itself is not new: astronauts entering a state of hibernation while en route to distant locations in order to help reduce the psychological demands of such long journeys. But for the first time, the European Space Agency (ESA) is looking at ways of turning the science fiction into science fact.
Experts predict that if in fact it is possible to induce hibernation in humans, the practical systems needed to do it are at least a decade away. However, scientists working in ESA's advanced concepts team are considering what research needs to be done between now and then in order to achieve the goal, reports the scientific journal Nature.
'We are not sure whether it is possible,' says Marco Biggiogera from the University of Pavia, Italy, and an ESA adviser on hibernation mechanisms. 'But it's not crazy.' As well as helping astronauts cope with boredom and other demands associated with decades-long journeys to the outer reaches of the solar system, hibernation would also reduce the amount of supplies needed for such a mission, keeping down the weight of the spacecraft.
The first interesting avenue of research for ESA focuses on an opium-like substance called DADLE (D-Ala, D-Leu-enkephalin), which is known to trigger summer hibernation in ground squirrels when they would normally be awake. DADLE has also been tested on cultures of human cells, causing a drop in gene activity and the rate at which cells divide. ESA researchers would now like to test its effect on non-hibernating animals such as rats.
Dr Biggiogera is also keen to carry out a study of the Madagascan fat-tailed dwarf lemur, which this year was found to be the first primate known to hibernate.
There are other challenges associated indirectly with human hibernation that will also need to be addressed if the method is to be put to practical use. For example, hibernation is known to lead to muscle atrophy similar to that observed in bedridden patients. Such patients are known to retain their strength better if they take dobutamine, a drug that boosts the muscles of the heart, so scientists may also investigate the practicality of using a similar treatment during hibernation.
There are also engineering sides to the challenge that need to be addressed. As such, ESA will draw up plans showing how a hibernation system could be integrated into the spacecraft that will take astronauts on a human mission to Mars in 2030, detailing how much energy and space could be saved.
ESA expects to produce a detailed research plan in around one year's time, which will include a roadmap of research projects that it hopes will turn the dream of human hibernation into a reality.
For more information on ESA's advanced concepts team, please consult the following web address: