A unique Irish experiment into the sleep patterns of astronauts, devised by two young University of Limerick researchers, will be launched into space this weekend.
The Irish experiment will travel with the space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station (ISS) where an astronaut will wear a special vest designed to monitor his sleep patterns over a period of 150 days.
"The quality of sleep, or more particularly the poor quality of it, is a major issue for NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) and one of the big stumbling blocks of long-distance space travel," said Dr Derek O'Keeffe, a UL lecturer in the Department of Electronics and Computer Engineering and biomedical engineer.
According to the UL lecturer, an astronaut in orbit finds it very difficult to get a good night's sleep.
"There is no gravity to keep you in the bed and even worse, your system has to cope with 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets in a 24-hour day. Disturbed sleep isn't refreshing and leaves flight crews feeling sleep-deprived and less able to concentrate," he added.
At present, shuttle and space station crews are given sleeping pills but little data is available on how this enforced sleep compares to normal sleep on earth.
Dr O'Keeffe and his UL colleague Dr Marc O'Griofa, who was a medical student at UCD when they started the project, hope to greatly improve this situation with their experiment, Cardiac Adapted Sleep Parameter Electrocardiogram Recorder or CASPER.
The researchers sent a proposal to the European Space Agency (ESA) in which they suggested substituting the traditional method of monitoring sleep, which measures activity in the brain, with an electrocardiogram (ECG), which measures electrical activity in the heart, using a special shirt or vest.
An ESA representative spotted the entry and moved it into another competition with the possibility of testing the design on the International Space Station.
According to Dr Mark O'Griofa anyone who has suffered jet-lag after a long-distance flight and relocation in a different time zone will be familiar with the sleep disturbance experienced by astronauts.
"Our bodies have internal clocks working to a circadian rhythm that modulates hormone production, organ function and other bodily functions all through the day. This clock sets itself to the rise and fall of the sun," explained Dr O'Griofa.
"Research has shown that our circadian rhythm can deal with the kind of disturbance experienced by astronauts for as much as 100 days.
"After this the body can't cope any more and the rhythm goes seriously out of sync. This spells trouble for long-distance space travel and one of the big difficulties of long distance space flight beyond the 100 days is that the circadian pattern begins to deregulate."
CASPER will leave with the space Shuttle Discovery on Saturday and spend 150 days in space and return to earth with the Russian spacecraft Soyuz.