Space is the final frontier for human exploration, and research on sleep is a crucial component of that exploration. In September, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) began a long-term study to learn how sleep patterns differ on space and Earth.
Sponsored by the European Space Agency (ESA), The Sleep in Orbit study will record crew members’ sleep patterns on Earth before and after the mission. Researchers will then compare this information with the sleep data from the astronauts in space. The results of this and other studies will help plan extended space travel in the future.
Participants in the study monitor their sleep using ear-electroencephalography (EEG) devices. Ear-EEG is less disruptive than the traditional polysomnography (PSG) used in sleep labs. For PSG, patients are hooked up to many wired electrodes. However, ear-EEG records the brain’s electric signals using only electrodes in the ear. This makes them ideal for long-term studies. Research shows that both systems deliver reliable readings.
The astronauts will also answer three questions about the device’s comfort and their sleep quality each morning.
The results of this study will give insight into astronaut’s quality of sleep over long periods. Scientists hope they will suggest new ways to help prevent poor sleep during missions. For example, they might change how crew members organize their work schedules.
Spending a long time in space results in many changes to the human body — astronaut Frank Rubio just returned from a year on the ISS and is currently undergoing post-mission examinations to determine the extent of those changes.
The study data will also help measure the link between an astronaut’s sleep quality and mental ability. Sleep deprivation has been linked to decreased memory and cognitive function. Studies show that these effects are severe during space travel.
Astronauts face unique challenges, like sleeping in zero gravity, and without the natural darkness and light to maintain circadian rhythms. These obstacles can make sleep and performing at their peak difficult.
The study will aid research and sleep science on Earth as well. The data about the brain’s response to a new sleep environment is significant for neuro- and health science.
Agencies have sponsored many previous sleep studies in space. Recently, one tested using an EEG headband to monitor sleep in space. Two others focused on astronauts’ circadian rhythms. The first examined how long space flight affected circadian rhythms. Another tested a new lighting system to help maintain the body clock.
To go to faraway planets like Mars, space agencies must consider astronauts’ biological needs. Sleep is essential for mental and physical well-being. Studies like Sleep in Orbit and others give insight to help make long-distance space travel a reality.
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