Hibernation, a track studied closely for long space trips

Hibernation, a track studied closely for long space trips

A Hibernating Alaskan Black Bear

Interstellar, Avatar, Alien, 2001, a space odyssey… These four masterpieces of cinema, made over four different decades, remind us: hibernation is a key ingredient in films imagining the future exploration of the cosmos. Yet, Angelique Van Ombergen, Head of Life Sciences at the European Space Agency (ESA), puts it straight off: “While many people think of hibernation as science fiction, our approach is truly scientific. » In a few points, the neuroscientist traces the roadmap: “First, determine our needs. Observing what hibernating animals are doing that might help us. Determine what non-hibernators can do and how applicable it would be to humans. Finally, implement the associated technologies. The process is started. The distance to be covered remains long. But it is essential to work in this direction, as the promises are so great. »

Huge, even. Hibernation seems tailor-made to accompany humans in 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 the on-board mass. “It’s one of the obsessions of space agencies, explains Alexander Chouker, resuscitator at the University Hospital of Munich and co-leader of the group of twenty experts on hibernation at ESA. Because it weighs on the size and power of the vessels, but also because each kilo on board costs more than 10,000 euros. Imagine what that means for a crew going to Mars, a two-and-a-half-year mission. However, hibernating animals stop eating and drinking and no longer produce waste. It’s the bargain. »

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Another constant concern of space agencies is the protection of the muscles and bones of travelers in the sky. “Gravity alone forces our muscles to actrecalls Fabrice Bertille, from the Hubert-Curien Multidisciplinary Institute in Strasbourg, whose research on bear hibernation is supported by ESA. In the International Space Station, in microgravity, despite continual exercises, the astronauts face serious problems of muscle wasting and, on their return, they are threatened by bone fragility. In a more constrained environment and over a longer period, it can become critical. However, bears do not encounter these difficulties. They lose 15% muscle the first month, then nothing. »

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