The year is 2039, and you’re an astronaut on your way to Mars. You’re only three months into the eight-month-long journey, and already your body is facing an onslaught of radiation from outer space. In zero gravity, your bones and muscles are at risk of wasting away.
You’re not worried though, as you are about to enter your own private stasis booth. Cocooned inside, you’ll blissfully sleep away the hours and days until you emerge fresh and rejuvenated at your destination.
For a long time a trope of science fiction stories, some scientists believe that human hibernation across the vastness of space could one day be possible.
If it were, it would be a boon for space exploration. A single astronaut consumes about 30kg (66lbs) of food and water a day. Multiply that by the approximate 16 months it would take to travel to Mars and back, and that adds up to a pretty hefty spaceship for all that life support.
Hibernating astronauts, on the other hand, wouldn’t eat or drink much, and would consume minimal oxygen. Hibernation could therefore save mission controllers a huge amount of money, reducing the amount of food cargo needed by 75% and the size of spacecraft needed by up to one-third.
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There’s also the psychological factors to consider. Hibernating astronauts wouldn’t get bored, stressed, or lonely, and less time and space would be needed to help keep them fit or entertained.
“There is uncertainty in how humans will react to the effect of no longer seeing Earth as a close-by planet out of the window, and seeing only dark outside,” says Leopold Summerer, head of the European Space Agency’s (Esa) Advanced Concepts Team, which keeps an eye on new space technologies. “The psychological stress this may induce is a bit of an unknown.”