Cutting Edge: Project CASPER
Astronauts are set to test a unique Irish made device that could help beat sleep problems.
The experiment, devised by two UL students, will be tested on the International Space Station in October when a Russian astronaut will wear a special vest device - called CASPER - to monitor his sleep over 150 days.
Astronauts are ideal candidates for this experiment as they are notoriously bad sleepers primarily due to the fact that they witness 16 sunsets and 16 sunrises in 24 hours. NASA has identified sleep disruption as one of the major issues to be addressed for long term space exploration. At the moment astronauts use sleeping tablets to help them get a night’s sleep but the side effects of these drugs can have an impact on the body over the long term especially in Space.
Bodies have an internal clock, called the circadian rhythm, which sets itself according to the rise and fall of the sun. Project CASPER’s Dr Marc O’Griofa says “Research has shown that our circadian rhythm can deal with the kind of disturbances experienced by astronauts for as much as 100 days. After this the body can’t cope anymore and the rhythm goes seriously out of sync.”
The normal method of checking sleep patterns involves using an EEG (a instrument for the measurement of the electrical activity of the brain) which is not a practical device for use in space making it difficult for to gauge how much sleep astronauts actually get.
Dr O’Griofa, a medical doctor and Dr Derek O’Keefe, a biomedical engineer, decided to tackle this problem and devised a less invasive method for monitoring sleep in space. The Irish duo used some existing research on using an ECG as the start of their project. Their plan was to measure the ECG (electrocardiogram) of the astronaut and correlate this with a questionnaire filled in by the subject.
They submitted their idea to ESA (European Space Agency) and NASA with both organizations expressing immediate interest. The pair set about adopting existing technologies, which already had FDA (American food and drug administration) and CE (European health & safety) approval, to speed the project up.
Derek’s research led him to a product called the LifeShirt which measured ECG. The main issue of bringing it to Space related to how the equipment could be charged using existing energies from the space craft but Derek rose the challenge and found a solution.
Whilst in Space, ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter will wear the experiment and fill in his daily questionnaires. The Irish team hope that in addition to helping solve astronaut sleep problems it might also help people who experience sleep disorders.