NASA astronauts could hibernate on deep space missions thanks to arctic squirrels

A hibernating Arctic squirrel handled by researchers.
Animals in hibernation are protected against bone and muscle mass that usually affects bed-ridden patients. (Image credit: Todd Paris, University of Alaska)

Researchers are studying hibernating Arctic ground squirrels with the goal of harnessing the benefits of this odd natural state to protect astronauts' health on long-duration space missions.

Hibernation is not just sleep. In fact, it's quite different from sleep. While we sleep, our brains fire up and become highly active; in hibernation, on the contrary, brain activity completely slows down. The body temperature of hibernating animals also drops, in some cases close to the freezing point, cells stop dividing and heart rate decreases to two beats per minute. 

Yet, once it's time to wake up, hibernating animals bounce back to life without any substantial side effects. The same, however, can't be said about people who wake up from long-term medical comas, or even those who are bed-ridden for long periods of time. Such people, just like astronauts in microgravity, would suffer from a wide range of side effects that come from not actively using their bodies: Muscle loss, bone loss, organ degradation. 

Related: 'Hibernating' astronauts may be key to Mars Colonization

NASA is therefore looking into hibernation research with the aim of developing ways to induce hibernation in future space farers. Recently, the agency has awarded a grant to Kelly Drew, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who has studied hibernating animals for more than two decades.

"This research could be used to help future missions, from the extreme of medically induced hibernation for long term space missions, protecting astronauts from cabin fever, ionizing radiation, and much more," NASA said in a statement. "It could also prove effective in preventing muscle and bone loss in zero gravity."

The idea is that rather than having astronauts sit for months in a tiny Mars-bound capsule, consuming food, water and air, and gradually wasting away from not doing much in microgravity, a part of the crew could be placed into hibernation. The hibernating astronauts wouldn't need any food or water and could manage with much less air  —  yet they would wake up with their bones and muscles in a much better condition than those of their awake counterparts.

The state of hibernation could also help in the medical setting to help protect patients suffering from life-threatening conditions such as heart attacks and strokes.

"This could mean that patients who have suffered from a stroke or heart attack could be placed in medically induced hibernation to slow their metabolism until they can be transported to a hospital to receive care, which could significantly improve medical outcomes," NASA said in the statement.

Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Tereza Pultarova
Senior Writer

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science,, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.

  • Toshikato
    I was hoping we'd get further into exploring hibernation. Un-ironically it was found humans are indeed capable of hibernation, through a few incidents that occured over the many winters, there was an incident where a woman supposedly froze to death after her car broke down on a highway between towns and before she could get help, she collapsed and was found in a similar state as hibernation. This woman in question was brought back from such a state (she was found an entire day after the blizzard), by introducing warmed saline solution into her blood stream. It took hours but she ultimately awaken well rested and with no damage to vital organs despite having nearly frozen to death and her heartbeat slowing to a hibernation like state.

    I'd like to imagine the mental health benefits due to hibernation as opposed to being awake for the entire trip to Mars, one is very isolating and the other is almost like pressing pause on life until the destination is reached.
  • KTMacLeod
    It is not commonly known, but ALL mammals are capable of hibernation.