Living On Mars Time
September 29, 2012

Researchers Probe Sleep Deprivation In Mars Mission Control Teams

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

What difference could 40 minutes make? Quite a bit, the mission controllers on the Mars Curiosity rover program have found out.

Since the landing in August, Curiosity has been roaming all over the red planet, learning as much possible about the Martian terrain. The Martian day is about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, and the mission control team has been trying to live and work on this extended schedule. This is causing havoc with their internal 24-hour body clock.

Researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) have developed a fatigue management program that is successful at controlling this space-age jetlag. The results of their tests will be published in the journal Sleep.

While investigating the Martian landscape, the mission controllers are required to communicate with Curiosity on Martian time. This slightly extended schedule poses a great challenge as the human body clock has evolved to expect a 24-hour light-dark. The Martian day runs at 24.65 hours per day, making it difficult to sleep, wake and work.

"Our study, which was conducted during the Phoenix Mars Lander mission, investigated the effectiveness of a pilot program to educate the mission personnel on how to reset their body clocks more quickly and how to improve their sleep, alertness and performance," explained Steven W. Lockley, PhD, neuroscientist at BWH, and senior investigator on this study.

For 11 weeks, the research team studied 19 scientific and technical support personnel for the Phoenix Lander mission. The participants were assessed using a self-reported sleep/work diary, continuous wrist actigraphy, and regular performance tests. A small subset of the study group was also given portable blue-light light boxes to place at their workstations. These light boxes helped to reset the internal body clock and improve performance. The team found that most participants were able to synchronize to a Martian day schedule.

"While adapting the human sleep-wake and performance cycle to a 24.65 hour day is a substantial challenge, our study has provided the foundation to develop comprehensive fatigue management programs for future missions, which may eventually include manned missions to Mars," explained Laura Barger, PhD, an associate physiologist at BWH and principal investigator of the study. "Such a program could decrease the risk of fatigue-related mistakes during these high profile and expensive missions."

The BWH team suggests that these findings may also prove helpful to other groups that work on unusual "day-lengths" such as submariners who traditionally live on an 18-hour day.