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Sleep problems could put a halt on future missions to Mars study

Margaret Jack  By Margaret Jack   |   Posted in Sleep Research   |   Last updated: Monday 14th January 2013

A recent simulation of a mission to Mars uncovered that some of the crew experienced isolation, mild depression and sleep deprivation.

The Mars500 project was a 17 month study to investigate how well the crew could cope on a real mission and to find out the physical and psychological effects the longer journey to Mars would have on future astronauts.

The simulation involved six crew members: three Russians, two Europeans and one Chinese volunteer. The crew underwent nearly 100 different experiments to assess the impact the journey would have on them. They had limited contact with the outside world, the spaceship has no windows and the protocols demanded their communications endured a comparable time lag to that encountered by actual messages as they travel the vast distance between Earth and Mars.

The study that was done at the University of Pennsylvania found that the different sleep patterns of the astronauts caused them problems during the simulation. One crew member lost his natural day/night rhythm completely. So instead of a 24 hour cycle, he slipped into a 25 hour day so after 12 days he was totally out of sync with his fellow crew mates. This caused him to be sleeping whilst his colleagues were working on the mission. As the simulation went on most of the crew members began to sleep more and became less active. However one member did the opposite and slept less and less causing him to be chronically sleep deprived. The results showed that astronauts chosen for any future Mars mission should be tested for their ability to cope without a natural day/night cycle.

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