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Humans may not be able to 'hibernate' on long-term space travel - And here's why

By: April Carson

Sending humans into space beyond the Moon increases our knowledge of health, food, and psychology to previously unforeseen limits. Unfortunately, it also exposes us to the dangers of a weightless environment. The most problematic effect is on our bones and muscles that lose their strength and become weak quickly if we don't train them for a long time.

Storing the void-travelers for a period of time is a typical answer to these difficulties in science fiction. Metabolism drops, and the mind is spared the monotony of waiting out endless empty hours while they are sleeping.

The idea of putting astronauts into a sort of stasis, as opposed to faster-than-light travel or wormholes, appears to be within reach. Even the European Space Agency is investigating the science behind it, in enough of a way that it's on their radar.

But there's a problem.

Humans may not be able to physically tolerate the stresses of long-term space travel, even in a state of hibernation.

Juan Maldacena, one of the scientists involved in the study, is considered a founding father of string theory and has received several honors for his work in physics. He feels that because humans are unable to comprehend how consciousness operates and what happens after death, humanity's ability to stay stable indefinitely would be limited.

The relationship between body mass and energy expenditure in hibernating animals was investigated by Roberto F. Nespolo and Carlos Mejias of the Millennium Institute for Integrative Biology and Francisco Bozinovic of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

They discovered a minimal metabolism threshold that allows cells to survive in the cold, low-oxygen environment. For animals like us who are relatively hefty, the energy savings we might anticipate from entering a deep, hibernation-like state would be minor.

While it may be possible that humans could achieve a temporary state of hibernation on long-term space travel, there are some key reasons why this might not be realistic. For example, our bodies require oxygen to function and survive, so in order to enter a deep state of hibernation we would need to limit our intake of oxygen - likely far below what would be required to maintain our cognitive abilities.

In reality, we'd be better off if we just took a long nap the old-fashioned way.

The term "hibernation" is most often associated with a bear snuggled down in its cave for the winter.

Bears do not hibernate in the exact same manner as smaller animals such as ground squirrels and bats. They do not enter a deep state where they are completely inactive or unconscious.

Body temperature plummets, metabolism slows, and heart rate and breathing become sluggish in these creatures. In certain situations, this mechanism may cut energy expenditure by as much as 98 percent, eliminating the need to search or forage.

However, even in this scenario, the animal may still lose more than a quarter of its body weight while using up its stored energy.

If we apply the same basic mathematics to a hibernating adult human, his or her daily food requirement of around 12,000 kilojoules would be supplanted by just a few hundred kilojoules of body fat.

Keeping with this scenario, consider our intrepid space tourist tucked up in their customized bed. This would result in about two kilograms of weight over a year if we continue to lose just over six grams of fat each day.

However, a one-year journey to the Jovian moons may be too short for most people who want to survive decades floating through interstellar space toward a nearby star. Alternatively, they'd have to pack on several hundred pounds of fat on a daily basis. Or else, they'd need to wake up every day and consume a lard milkshake or three.

Back-of-the-envelope calculations rely on a number of assumptions, not least of which is how hibernation might expand. After all, there's undoubtedly a rationale behind the scarcity of massive hibernating mammals our size (or larger). As a result, the researchers performed a statistical study similar to those conducted in previous studies.

Based on this, they deduced that the daily energy expenditure of hibernating animals scales in a fairly balanced way, so a gram of tissue from a tiny mammal like the 25-gram leaf-eared bat consumes roughly the same amount of energy as a gram of tissue from an 820-pound ground squirrel.

This is where things get really interesting, and a little bit discouraging for spacefarers. The study found that while animals the size of a human could theoretically hibernate, the process would be so energy intensive that it would require an impractical amount of food. In other words, you couldn't simply enter a state of suspended animation and hope to wake up when you arrive at your destination.

If we ever figured out how to hibernate as well as a dormouse, every gram of our tissue would require the same amount of energy. It's a different story when bigger animals are active, but it's not much better for us. Scaling the metabolic rate and mass relationship results in a somewhat altered graph showing where hibernation does not make sense for humans.

That would imply our whole energy requirements while hibernating aren't going to be substantially different from those we have when we're merely resting.

That is, while they are in hibernation, their bodies continue to function. This may be why bears don't really hibernate in the same way smaller animals do. And it also implies that going to all of the effort and risk of lowering our body temperature and heart rate, as well as breathing and slowing our metabolism, just might not provide us with the effects we desire.

The benefits of hibernation may well be overrated, and the risks of not doing it might be unpredictable. But that does not mean that we should stop exploring ways in which humans could survive long-term space missions.

But there's a possibility that the very act of trying to use hibernation could have a detrimental effect on our health.

It's not worth the effort to force people to hibernate.

This study was published in the Royal Society B's Proceedings.

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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