Real-life sci­ence of deep space travel

Com­pany us­ing grant from NASA to ex­plore pos­si­bil­ity of turn­ing sci-fi fan­tasy into re­al­ity

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD - By AGENCE FRANCEPRESSE in Los Angeles

From Aliens to In­ter­stel­lar, Hol­ly­wood has long used sus­pended an­i­ma­tion to over­come the dif­fi­cul­ties of deep space travel, but the once-fan­ci­ful sci-fi sta­ple is be­com­ing sci­en­tific fact.

The the­ory is that a hi­ber­nat­ing crew could stay alive over vast cos­mic dis­tances, re­quir­ing lit­tle food, hy­dra­tion or liv­ing space, po­ten­tially slashing the costs of in­ter­stel­lar mis­sions and erad­i­cat­ing the bore­dom of space travel.

But the tech­nol­ogy has al­ways been unattain­able out­side the fer­tile imag­i­na­tions of film­mak­ers from Woody Allen and Ri­d­ley Scott to James Cameron and Christo­pher Nolan — un­til now.

At­lanta-based Space­works En­ter­prises is us­ing a $500,000 grant from NASA to lever­age tech­niques used on brain trauma and heart at­tack pa­tients to develop “low meta­bolic sta­sis” for mis­sions to Mars and the as­ter­oid belt.

“It takes about six months to get out to Mars ... There are a lot of de­mands, a lot of sup­port equip­ment re­quired to keep peo­ple alive even dur­ing that pe­riod,” said Space­Works CEO John Brad­ford

The aerospace en­gi­neer told a panel in Los Angeles mark­ing the re­lease on Wed­nes­day of Pas­sen­gers, the lat­est movie to ex­plore sus­pended an­i­ma­tion, that his com­pany was adapt­ing the med­i­cal tech­nique of in­duced hy­pother­mia to as­tro­nau­tics.

Hos­pi­tals lower the core tem­per­a­ture of trauma pa­tients by around 12 C to achieve a 70 per­cent re­duc­tion in me­tab­o­lism, al­though they are “shut down” for a cou­ple of days rather than the months as­tro­nauts would need.

“We’re eval­u­at­ing it. We think it’s med­i­cally pos­si­ble,” Brad­ford said.

Morten Tyl­dum’s Passen- gers stars Chris Pratt and Jen­nifer Lawrence as strangers on a 120-year jour­ney to the dis­tant colony of Home­stead II when their hi­ber­na­tion pods wake them 90 years too early.

While the re­search be­ing done by Space­Works could make 180-day jour­neys to Mars much more af­ford­able, the tech­nol­ogy is not ca­pa­ble — not yet — of ex­tend­ing hu­man life to al­low for the thou­sands of years re­quired to reach our next near­est star.

Even at the rel­a­tively small Mars-like dis­tances, “in­duced tor­por” is not with­out its chal­lenges, says Brad­ford, es­pe­cially on short mis­sions where as­tro­nauts have lit­tle time to re­cover af­ter be­ing wo­ken from sta­sis.

“You’re go­ing to be tired. In this process, you’re not re­ally sleep­ing, your body doesn’t en­ter a (rapid eye move­ment) state,” said Brad­ford.

“If we look at an­i­mal hi­ber­na­tors, they will ac­tu­ally come out of hi­ber­na­tion to sleep and then go back into hi­ber­na­tion.”

Pas­sen­gers screen­writer Jon Spai­hts says he found him­self run­ning into ten­sions be­tween the dra­matic re­quire­ments of the movie and “hard sci­ence” when it came to de­sign­ing his hi­ber­na­tion pods.

Nei­ther in­duced tor­por nor any of its most re­al­is­tic al­ter­na­tives are “states in which Sleep­ing Beauty in her bed would look par­tic­u­larly gor­geous,” he said.

“The hi­ber­na­tion in this movie is a lit­tle more magical just be­cause we need peo­ple to look cute in those pods. Peo­ple float­ing in a sea of sludge or frozen like pop­si­cles are a lit­tle less ro­man­tic.”

NASA says the Tran­sit­ing Ex­o­planet Sur­vey Satel­lite, launch­ing in 12 months, will seek out yet more new worlds among the galaxy’s bright­est stars, where the dis­cov­ery of Earth­ling-friendly plan­ets is deemed more likely.

But what are the odds of find­ing such a planet — a re­al­life ver­sion of the Home­stead II de­picted in Pas­sen­gers?

“We sim­ply don’t know. It must be out there,” said Tif­fany Kataria, a weather spe­cial­ist with NASA.

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