Sleepless in space

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A study, in a mock spaceship, has found that astronauts might have trouble sleeping on a long trip in space

A researcher greets his relatives after completing a gruelling 520-day simulation of a flight to Mars.Photo: AP
A researcher greets his relatives after completing a gruelling 520-day simulation of a flight to Mars.Photo: AP

Astronauts have a down-to-Earth problem that could be even worse on a long trip to Mars — they cannot get enough sleep.

And over time, the lack of slumber can turn intrepid space travellers into drowsy couch potatoes, a new study shows.

In a novel experiment, six volunteers were confined in a cramped mock spaceship in Moscow to simulate a 17-month voyage. It made most of the would-be spacemen lethargic, much like birds and bears heading into winter, gearing up for hibernation.

The men went into a prolonged funk. Four had considerable trouble sleeping, with one having minor problems and the sixth mostly unaffected. Some had depression issues. Sometimes, a few of the men squirreled themselves away into the most private nooks they could find. They didn’t move much. They avoided crucial exercise.

“This looks like something you see in birds in the winter,” said lead author David Dinges, a sleep expert at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Dinges said scientists cannot tell if the men’s lethargy was just lack of sleep or was also caused by other factors— the close quarters, lack of privacy with so many cameras or being away from their families for so long.

Why does it matter?

When leaving confinement in November 2011, the six volunteers three Russians, a Frenchman, an Italian-Colombian and a Chinese called their experience successful- “We can go forward and now plan to go to Mars and move confidently,” said volunteer Romain Charles of France.

The loss of sleep matters because astronauts will have to perform intricate tasks on the way to Mars and while on the red planet. And they have to do vigorous exercises daily to fight the toll that near-zero gravity takes on the bones and other parts of the body. And most of the volunteers weren’t doing that.AP



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