Sleep problems could be a danger in long space voyages

The Mars500 mission virtual astronauts (photo ESA/IBMP - Oleg Voloshin)
The Mars500 mission virtual astronauts (photo ESA/IBMP – Oleg Voloshin)

Between June 2010 and November 2011, the Mars500 mission simulated a journey to Mars, a brief exploration of the red planet and the return to Earth. This experiment was carried out by Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in collaboration with ESA (European Space Agency). It’s an international collaboration and now some results of the analysis of the virtual astronauts’ health have been published by the American National Academy of Sciences.

The mission was carried out by a virtual crew whose members came from different countries: there were the Russians Alexey Sitev, Sukhrob Kamolov and Alexandr Smoleevskiy, the Italian-Colombian Diego Urbina, the Chinese Wang Yue and the French Romain Charles. For 520 days they were closed in the replica of the interior of a spaceship and for a brief period some of them explored the replica of Martian terrain.

This simulation is important because the virtual astronauts have been isolated from the outside world, communicating via radio only with a delay equal to what they would experience during a real journey to Mars and back. During this experiment, various tests were performed on the participants in order to verify their behavior during such a long mission. The results showed the problems real astronauts could face during a real space journey so long in terms of time and distance from Earth.

The main problem encountered in the virtual astronauts is the alteration of their cycles of sleep and wake. The progressive loss of reference points to day and night caused a tendency to sleep more in most of the crew. One of them, however, started to sleep less and less instead and after some time he started having problems because of lack of sleep making mistakes in the periodic tests he was subjected to.

Another problem related to the alteration of the cycles of sleep and wake hit a virtual astronaut for whom the day got slightly longer. The result was that in a short time he lost sync with the other crew members. The fact that at times he was the only one awake and sometimes the only one asleep partially isolated him from his colleagues and this is a bad thing in a mission where people have to live together in a small space.

The researchers who analyzed the behavior of the crew identified the lights among the problems. In the Mars500 mission they used quite dim fluorescent lamps, not brilliant enough to adequately simulate the day. The lights could be turned off but the astronauts were to decide when and this didn’t help to maintain an appropriate cycle of sleep and wake.

It’s obvious that having sleep problems during a real journey to Mars could be disastrous. For this reason, the researchers concluded that for a long space voyage, within the spaceship the Earth’s cycles should be replicated as much as possible to avoid stresses very dangerous to astronauts.

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