As we get closer and closer to the possibility of us colonizing on Mars and implementing interstellar traveling across the board, it’s time to start thinking about some of the finer details. One such point is how people will travel in space. Will they be awake during these flights or is it best to incorporate cryogenic sleep into the trip?
Various science fiction movies have suggested that perhaps cryogenic sleep is the best option when considering interstellar traveling, including Prometheus, Interstellar, and The Fifth Element and as we get closer to carrying out these things for real, it’s time to take note. Hypersleep pods are what keeps the travelers protected and prevents them from aging while they are whizzed away to some far away world in outer space.
Cryogenics works by preserving the body through vitrification. As antifreeze is added it replaces water in the cells and allows the tissue to cool accordingly to a rather chilly -220 degrees Fahrenheit. The chemicals then clump together to form a solid that’s molecularly similar to glass and it’s this glass that stops the cells from bursting, keeping them in stasis indefinitely. Now that’s all good and well, but legally a person can’t be frozen until they’re dead, meaning they’ll somehow have to be brought back to life in the future.
There’s a difference between legal death and total death and should cryogenics work, it may not involve bringing back someone who is completely gone. The idea is that if the body is frozen just after the heart stops but before the brain has a chance to shut down it’s possible to retrieve a life back to its normal state. Although this would involve re-warming the person, which is the difficult part. However, progress is being made and earlier this year researchers successfully managed to thaw some tissue using a re-warming blanket.
So, hopefully, it won’t be too long before organs can be frozen in this way and used at a later date. It’s estimated that around half of the organs donated currently go to waste because they don’t make it to the recipient in time. Cryogenics is a way of stopping that. It’s also a way of cooling a system to a point where it slows aging, which would be particularly useful for those looking to travel to Mars for example. If you were asleep for the whole journey, you wouldn’t need to worry about food or battling the ill effects of space travel.
And, it’s not that strange an idea really. Just think of certain animals that hibernate, such as the ground squirrel. These little creatures have the ability to cool their body temperature to just above freezing where they appear dead to the world but are really alive. Unless they’re sniffed out by a predator they simply stay in they state for weeks, after which they re-warm and go about their daily lives again. Biologist Gail Michener commented, “It would simply be grabbed by the badger and be dead without even knowing what had happened to it. That’s a very extreme physiological state to be in.”
Some people have achieved states of torpor, but no one has yet managed to do this for more than a couple of weeks at a time, which will not be much good for long-term space missions. So it seems it may be back to the drawing board for now in terms of how we’ll be transported when it comes to interstellar space travel. Cryogenics may well be the key, but there’s clearly a long way to go before that’s going to happen in time for upcoming space missions.
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