The Hibernator’s Guide to the Galaxy

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One day in 1992, near the northern pole of a planet hurtling around the Milky Way at roughly 500,000 miles per hour, Kelly Drew was busy examining some salmon brains in a lab. Her concentration was broken when Brian Barnes, a zoophysiology professor from down the hall at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, popped by her bench for a visit. With a mischievous grin, he asked Drew—a neuropharmacologist early in her career—to hold out her hands and prepare for a surprise. A moment later, she felt a hard, furry lump deposited in her palms. It was some sort of brown rodent with dagger-like claws, curled up into a tight ball and so cold to the touch that Drew assumed it was dead. To her astonishment, Barnes gleefully explained that it was actually in perfect health.

An Arctic ground squirrel—the most extreme hibernator on the planet—can spend up to eight months a year in a torpid state. 

Photograph: Mary Webb

The creature, an Arctic ground squirrel, was just hibernating, as it does for up to eight months of the year. During that span, the animal's internal temperature falls to below 27 degrees Fahrenheit, literally as cold as ice. Its brain waves become so faint that they're nearly impossible to detect, and its heart beats as little as once per minute. Yet the squirrel remains very much alive. And when spring comes, it can elevate its temperature back to 98.6 degrees in a couple of hours.

Drew cradled the unresponsive critter in her hands, unable to detect even the faintest signs of life. What's going on inside this animal's brain that allows it to survive like this? she wondered. And with that question, she began to burrow into a mystery that would carry her decades into the future.

At this point, in the year 2022, no fewer than three major entities—NASA, the Chinese National Space Administration, and SpaceX—are vying to put the first human on Mars by 2040 or so. To win that race, a team must first solve a series of vexing design riddles. As an executive at SpaceWorks, an Atlanta-based engineering firm that tackles ambitious research projects for NASA, John Bradford has spent the past decade running th...

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