One of the major problems with traveling vast distances in space is that trips could take a long, long time. In a lot of science fiction movies, such as “Alien” and “Planet of the Apes,” scriptwriters get around this problem by depicting astronauts slumbering for long stretches in suspended animation, like hibernating animals. Unfortunately, slowing the human metabolism and keeping a person alive for lengthy periods in that state is easier imagined than done. Surface-induced deep hypothermia — in layman’s terms, freezing — probably isn’t a good option, for example, since ice crystals begin to form inside the cells, and then destroy them as they grow, according to Michio Kaku, author of “Physics of the Impossible.”
But there may be other methods of maintaining a person in suspended animation without the ice. In 2006, for example, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston slowed down the metabolism and cardiovascular systems of mice by administering small, controlled doses of hydrogen sulfide, the foul-smelling toxic gas produced by rotting eggs and sewage, and then were able to reverse the state of suspended animation afterward, according to Science Daily. In subsequent experiments, the researchers accomplished this feat even without a reduction in body temperature.
Force fields are a staple of science fiction, in which they’re usually used to protect a spaceship or space station from attackers. In “Star Wars,” for example, the Death Star on which Darth Vader did his heavy breathing was protected by such a shield. But in actual deep space travel, scientists are looking to force fields to solve another problem — how to protect astronauts’ bodily cells from the continual radiation bombardment in space that might cause them to develop cancers and other health problems.
For the most part, dangerous radiation in space comes from electrically charged particles: high-speed electrons and protons put out by the Sun, and huge, positively charged atomic nuclei put out by distant supernovas. Hypothetically, if a spaceship were equipped with a powerful electrical field that had the same charge as the incoming radiation, it might be able to deflect that radiation. Unlike the force fields in movies, however, a practical force field might involve some visible objects. In one scheme developed by NASA scientists in the mid-2000s, spheres made of a thin, strong material and coated with a very thin layer of a conductor such as gold would be floated at low altitude over a base camp on another planet and then charged with electricity, according to NASA. Portable versions of the same device could be used on spaceships and rover vehicles.
8. Warp speed
In “Star Trek,” the Starship Enterprise travels enormous distances in weeks and months, even visiting other galaxies — a feat that would be impossible at the speeds that spacecraft currently travel. The Enterprise does this by using warp drive, in which the spacecraft basically takes shortcuts through holes caused by distortions of space-time. (This is a tricky concept to grasp; imagine space and time as a giant tablecloth, one that you can stretch, twist and poke pathways through.)
This might seem like a totally goofy, ridiculous idea, but physicists actually have been contemplating it since at least the 1920s. In 1994, theoretical physicist and Trekkie Miguel Alcubierre actually published a scientific paper showing that a warp drive could be created without contradicting Einsteinian physics, which would seem to dictate that faster-than-light travel is impossible. According to Alcubierre, it would be possible to get around this limitation if a spacecraft used energy to create a sort of bubble around it, which would cause space-time to expand behind it and contract in the direction that the spacecraft wanted to go. One drawback of this speculative technology is that it would require enormous amounts of energy.
9. Grow food
Like everybody else, astronauts in deep space would need to eat, and finding room inside a spacecraft to bring along the vast quantities of supplies needed to sustain them on trips lasting multiple years would be a major headache. That’s why NASA scientists are looking for ways for astronauts to grow their own food while en route to other planets, without using soil or large amounts of water.
Aeroponic crops would be grown from special seeds suspended in the air in plastic frames, instead of being planted and fertilized with chemicals. Research has shown that aeroponically grown plants actually absorb more minerals and vitamins than ones grown in the ground, making them potentially more nutritious, according to NASA. But man does not live by broccoli alone, so scientists will have to come up with a way to provide a good protein source as well. Perhaps another promising technology is test-tube meat, grown in strips from stem cells in a laboratory. A Dutch professor recently announced that he had grown small strips of muscle tissue from a pig’s stem cells, which could eventually lead to artificial, cruelty-free artificial beef, pork, chicken or lamb.
10. Air and water
Another thing that astronauts will need in space is supplies of both breathable air and drinkable water, and obviously they can’t haul Earth behind them to provide a continuously refreshed supply. That’s why NASA scientists are working to develop air recovery systems that will filter, extract and restore to a ship’s internal atmosphere as much oxygen as possible. By 2016, researchers expect to have the ability to recover as much as 75 percent of the oxygen from the carbon dioxide that astronauts breathe out, and by 2019, they hope to achieve 100 percent recovery, according to Space.com.
Additionally, great strides are being made in water recycling in space. The International Space Station, for example, is now equipped with a special system that recycles both urine and waste water from washing. It rotates them in a special distillation unit that compensates for the absence of gravity and separates the actual water from waste materials, microorganisms and other contaminants, according to Water-Technology.net .