Illustration by Hannah Robinson

Humble, fossil-free, ageless and resistant to radiation; these are no superpowers, but merely perks of a good old-fashioned winter slumber, also known as hibernation. Dr. Rob Henning has been studying hibernation at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, and surprisingly, with his work recently gaining interest from the European Space Agency (ESA), his findings may help to advance human space travel.

Henning’s office is decorated with statues of little animals: “all hibernators” he points out as I admire his kingdom of inanimate souvenirs. He explains that animals in hibernation (also known as ‘torpor’) only need a fraction of the food, oxygen and water required to stay alive, due to almost entirely shutting down their metabolism.

Space agencies, most notably ESA, have become interested with how such knowledge of hibernation could be applied to long distance space travel. Henning and his fellow colleagues, now working for ESA, are focusing on answering key questions on how the state of hibernation is initiated, whether it is related to sleep, and which mechanisms are responsible for maintaining integrity during the torpor state.

When in space, each crew member needs about 30kg of food, water and oxygen supply per day, meaning a crew of six members would require roughly ten tons of weight for a return trip to Mars. According to ESA’ s correspondent, Laetitia de Groot, if Henning and his colleagues manage to decrease the basic metabolic rate of an astronaut by at least 75%, as commonly seen in hibernators, this could result in substantial mass and cost savings for long-duration space travel.

However, decreasing the metabolic rate would not solve all of the problems of long-distance space travel; human physiology is simply not adjusted to such journeys. Astronauts spend several hours a day working out in order to prevent bone and muscle loss decay – a serious health concern caused by the lack of gravity.

“The beauty of suppressing our metabolism is that we are not as responsive to the surrounding environmental factors. We already know of approaches that allow us to suppress our metabolism to more than 40% of the basal level. Even such mild suppression will be significant for practical application,” explains Yuri Griko, a NASA researcher also interested in hibernation, inspired by Henning’s work.

ESA has, for the first time, obtained data confirming that torpor can be induced synthetically in animals that do not naturally hibernate, also working as efficient protection against space radiation. Currently there are around two-hundred cross-discipline researchers working on applying hibernation research to space travel, but the idea of hibernating astronauts remains a controversial topic for most. However, some astronauts are coming to terms with this: “I would be open-minded,” says NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao, “but my initial preference would be to remain awake.”

So far, hibernation can only be mimicked. In order to induce it, the key would have to be found to turn off our metabolism. “If you figure out the switch you will get a Nobel prize,” laughs Dr. Henning.