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Humans should learn to hibernate like bears to survive epic journeys into deep space, boffins believe.
Shutting down the body to slow breathing and reduce the heart rate would help astronauts make the eight-month trip from Earth to Mars which experts hope one day to colonise.
Cocooned inside a private booth inside a spacecraft they will be able to sleep away the long hours instead of staring into darkness while eating and drinking valuable rations.
Scientists reckon adopting a bear's winter-time cave shutdown would allow humans to travel vast distances into the Solar System so they wake up fresh and rejuvenated at their destination.
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Hibernating is set to become an essential aspect of deep space travel.
A single astronaut consumes 30kg – 66lb – of food and water-a-day which over 16 months round-trip to Mars which fill a giant spaceship.
But hibernating astronauts would not eat or drink much or need as much oxygen.
Hibernation could save mission controllers billions cutting the size of food cargo required by 75% and size of spacecraft needed by up to a third.
Nor would astronauts get bored, stressed or lonely and they could spend less time keeping themselves fit or entertained.
Leopold Summerer, head of the European Space Agency's Advanced Concepts Team, said: "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.
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"The psychological stress this may induce is a bit of an unknown.''
Without gravity astronauts experience muscle wastage and bone density loss.
At the International Space Station – where hi-tech gym equipment is available 24/7 and strict exercise protocols are followed – they lose up to 20% of their muscle mass.
But hibernating animals enter a special state called a "torpor" in which their metabolism slows and heart rate, breathing and body temperature falls.
Cells that make up the body stop dividing and dying.
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Torpor – which is different to sleep – allows animals to preserve energy at times of food scarcity.
It would also protect against some harmful effects of space travel.
Hibernating squirrels have shown resistance to high levels of radiation – common in space – as cells replicate at lower rates and are less susceptible to damage.
Entering a torpor-like state helps bears and squirrels preserve bone structure and muscle tone.
Despite hibernating for up to six months at a time black bears emerge in spring with only marginal muscle loss and are back to normal within 20 days.
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Neuroscience and cell biology professor Jüergen Bereiter-Hahn (corr), of the space agency's hibernation research group, said: "If you stayed in bed for several months you would lose a great deal of muscle tissue over that time.
"This strong reduction of tissue during long periods of disuse is almost completely avoided during torpor which means astronauts coming to Mars should be in good shape and shouldn't need a very long time to recover.''
Studies have also shown scientists can use drugs which act on the brain to induce torpor in normally non-hibernating animals like rats.
Cooling the body down to reduce a body's demand for energy and oxygen could also induce a torpor-like state.
Therapeutic hypothermia – in which patients' bodies are chilled to 93.2F (34C) to reduce organ damage – is used in some hospitals to treat cardiac arrest or brain injury sufferers.
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US aerospace engineering giant SpaceWorks Enterprises, which has NASA funding, believes such treatment could be a good way of placing space travellers into a "synthetic torpor".
Astronauts would be placed in compact pods where they would enter a two-week stint of hibernation before being active for a couple of days – then going back into shutdown.
It could be done on rotation so there would always be a crew member awake to tackle safety concerns or emergencies.
SpaceWorks chief executive officer John Bradford said they are considering feeding cooling nitrogen gas to astronauts via nasal tubes to cut metabolic activity by 50% – or using ambient air and light sedatives.
Robotic arms would then be programmed to move astronauts' limbs, check body sensors and administer electrical stimuli to muscles to maintain tone.
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They could be drip-fed bags of essential nutrients.
University of Oxford sleep physiology professor Vladyslav Vyazovskiy said: "As far as we know there is nothing unique about home sapiens that would prevent our species from hibernating.
"I believe the capacity is there but it needs to be unlocked.
"To me the real question is not whether we can hibernate but how?'
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