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Lengthy Mars journey could hamper sleep cycles

| Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, 8:54 p.m.

Mars travelers may want to pack extra jammies, a study suggests, finding sleepiness and insomnia dogging astronauts in a space travel simulation of a 520-day trip to the Red Planet.

The sleep study results released on Monday looked at the six volunteers on the Mars 500 project, concluded in November. The cooperative effort by the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems and the European Space Agency “sent” six young men on a simulated round-trip to Mars conducted within trailer-sized isolation chambers. Aside from a brief visit to a simulated Mars landing site, they remained inside the chambers for the entire time, performing jobs similar to ones needed on a trip to Mars.

“A Mars mission trip will involve much longer periods of time in a spacecraft than anyone has experienced,” said study author David Dinges of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Only four people have lived more than a year in space. The record, 437 days on Russia's Mir space station, was set by cosmonaut Valery Polyakov.

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science study, an international research team continuously tracked the movement, sleep and exposure to light of the Mars 500 volunteers during the simulation.

They were tested weekly on how well they performed brain puzzles.

“We were surprised to find a lot of torpor as the mission went on,” Dinges said. “They moved less, and they slept more.”

American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will spend a solid year aboard the International Space Station, twice as long as the usual stint, in 2015 as part of related efforts to prepare astronauts for long-distance space travel that space agencies hope to undertake in the next decade.

A trip to Mars will probably take longer and involve communication cutoffs and delays, as well as radiation threats, even more trying than life aboard the International Space Station, Dinges said.

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