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Real-life science of deep space travel

By Agence France-presse in Los Angeles | China Daily | Updated: 2016-12-26 07:45

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

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 Passengers 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 real-life 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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