David Zax

A View from David Zax

Curing Outer Space Insomnia

With the help of novel color-changing light technology.

  • December 17, 2012

Anyone who’s watched a sci-fi film of late about deep space knows the importance of a good night’s sleep. In outer space, Hollywood has informed us, people run the risk of going a little cuckoo, and one of the best ways to stave off an Event Horizon scenario (or, more mundanely, to simply keep astronauts performing at their best) may be to ensure they all get some serious shut-eye.

And how do we help astronauts get some rest, so far from home? With technology, of course. NASA will reportedly test special color-changing lights aboard the International Space Station, reports the BBC. The test, which should run in 2016, involves replacing fluorescent lights for something called a solid-state lighting module (SSLM, for short). The SSLM lights contain LEDs which variously produce blue, white, or red light, depending on time–something which NASA hopes will reduce insomnia, and, in turn, mental health problems like depression.

The experiment will run specifically in the US section of the ISS, reports Space.com, which adds that the product should somehow manage to cost $11.2 million. The site adds that though astronauts are generally permitted to have 8.5 hours of shut-eye, they typically only take six. “The station is noisy, carbon dioxide is high, you don’t have a shower, there’s a lot of angst because you’ve got to perform. Imagine if you have a camera on you 24 hours a day,” the lead physician for NASA’s wellness program told Space.com.

What’s the deal with the different colors of light? The blue light is intended to stimulate the brain during “day” time, since the human brain has evolved to respond to the blue sky. Being exposed to blue light suppresses melatonin, that sleepy hormone, and promotes the formation of melanopsin, which helps keep people awake. Meanwhile, red light does just the opposite: stimulating melatonin, suppressing melanopsin. By dialing in blue light at certain times and red light at others, astronauts can help promote a healthy sleep-wake cycle.

A recent posting on NASA’s website goes into more detail about the SSLM and describes the planned experiment. The SSLM measures 26.5” x 6.6” x 3.9” and weighs some seven-and-a-half pounds. Bonus points: on top of hopefully alleviating “circadian disruption,” the SSLM has a longer life span and “does not contain potentially toxic mercury vapor,” another potential source of sci-fi horror stories. NASA further points out that astronauts are simply guinea pigs for the general population in some ways, since many of us suffer from sleep disorders here on the home planet: “By refining multipurpose lights for astronaut safety, health and well-being in spaceflight, the door is opened for new lighting strategies that can be evolved for use on Earth.”

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