Why the biggest problem for astronauts headed to Mars may be sleep

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Jul 4, 2015, 5:44 PM EDT

Going to Mars seems cool, but having to spend a year and a half in a tiny space with several other people to get there is enough to give anyone second thoughts. Still, six volunteers gave it a try in a Mars simulation, and found out the biggest problem faces Mars voyagers could be sleep deprivation.

The six men (three Russians, one Chinese, one French and an Italian-Colombian) spent 520 days in a mock space capsule about the size of a school bus as part of a simulation organized by the Russian and European space agencies to determine how the long-term closed quarters that a Mars mission requires would affect astronauts. The men completed their non-journey back in late 2011, but researchers are still poring over data from the simulation, and among the things they've discovered is how little sleep the volunteers got.

Four of the six volunteers experience significant difficulty sleeping during their 17 months of confinement, while a fifth had only minor issues and a sixth was unaffected. As a result, some of the volunteers had issues with depression, they sometimes tried to seclude themselves from each other, and they moved less. Devices on the volunteers' wrists that monitored their movements showed the men moved far less than they should have and often skipped recommended exercise regimes designed to counter the effects that zero-gravity conditions have on bone and muscle tissue.

"This looks like something you see in birds in the winter," said David Dinges, a sleep expert at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine who served as lead author of a new study on the effects the simulation had on the volunteers.

Losing sleep in space is nothing new. Many astronauts, including some who spent more than a year on the International Space Station, have reported difficulty adjusting to the conditions. It's a problem that needs to be addressed if astronauts are to go to Mars successfully, particularly when you consider all the intricate tasks astronauts will have to achieve on such a long and important voyage.

So how do we fix it? Well, astronauts have been known to use sleeping pills to help regulate their rest, but another thing Dinges suggests is lighting. Using various types of artificial light to simulate a day-and-night cycle could help regulate the sleep patterns of voyagers on their way to and from Mars.

(Via Huffington Post)