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Hibernation Method Tested for Space Travel

Irene Klotz, Discovery News
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To Sleep, Perchance to Hibernate
To Sleep, Perchance to Hibernate

April 4, 2008 -- No matter how much you like your crewmates, a three-year mission to Mars would test the even the best of relationships.

And that's not even the primary reason why future long-duration space travelers may spend part of the journey in suspended animation.

There's the tremendous expense of carrying food, oxygen and carbon dioxide scrubbers to keep astronauts alive, not to mention the hassle of processing their urine and feces.

"Wouldn't it be neat if you could just put them out?" said Warren Zapol, the head of anesthesiology at Harvard University's Massachusetts General Hospital.

One option would be to cool the crew cabin into a big chill. But body temperatures below 30 Celsius (86 degrees F) can disturb the heart's rhythm. Another possibility would be to have the astronauts breathe swamp gas.

Zapol and colleagues report in this month's Anesthesiology journal about how hydrogen sulfide -- the same stuff produced by rotten eggs and swamp gas -- slows mouse metabolism without cutting blood flow to the brain.

"The mice aren't asleep," Zapol told Discovery News. "If you pinch their tails, they respond.

"I don't know what it's like," he added, "probably some slow-motion world."

There are many questions and years of research before healthy people like astronauts would be put into hibernated states, but the procedure could find an earlier application in cases of traumatic injury when life itself is at risk.

"Sixty percent of people in war are dead right there on the field," Zapol said. "They are instantly hurt, and because there is no blood and no fluids in the field, by the time they get to a hospital they are cold and dead and there is nothing to fix.

What It's Like to be an Astronaut

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