New research shows a fresh lighting scheme could help astronauts sleep better, and oh boy, do they need it.
Astronauts are allotted 8.5 hours for sleep out of every 24, but they actually average about 6 hours a night. Their leisure time is prone to occasional disruptions (emergency or docking procedures), plus there’s a new sunrise every 90 minutes, and of course that whole weightlessness thing. On month and even year-long missions (like the speculated 3 year voyage to Mars), it’s pretty darn easy to get frazzled.
When NASA announced they were planning to switch the space station’s outdated fluorescents to LEDs, Dr. George Brainard, a professor of neurology from Thomas Jefferson University, had a few ideas. Not only would the LEDs be more efficient and longer lasing than fluorescents, they could be beneficial for astronaut health.
Here’s what Dr. Brainard had to say about the importance of sleep for our astronauts:
“Every one of us has probably done an all-nighter or two in our lives. You feel crummy the next day, but you bounce back. And you also get recovery sleep. They (the astronauts) are not getting their recovery sleep. That’s the problem. Day in, day out, they’re missing the ingredients for best health and best behavioral regulation.”
Based on previous research on how light helps regulate our various biological clocks (sleep, digestion, cognitive performance, and mood), Brainard made his case for adjustable LEDs aboard the station.
Several trials with volunteers spending hours at a time in closet-sized replicas of the astronauts’ sleeping quarters showed how light could affect melatonin levels in the body (the hormone that regulates circadian rhythm). Blue light especially suppresses the hormone, increasing alertness.
Under Brainard’s supervision, the new LEDs will have three “on” settings: cool light to enhance alertness, warm light for relaxation, and a regular setting for midday.
The first lights won’t go to NASA until mid-2015, but their potential to help the astronauts max-perform has already gotten everyone jazzed.
To read more about Dr. Brainard’s research, check out this New York Times article.