NASA
Astronaut John Glenn (right) gets bloodwork done in his bunk aboard space shuttle Discovery in 1998. About half of astronauts require sleep medication at some point during their flights, NASA said.
By
updated 12/16/2012 11:51:01 AM ET 2012-12-16T16:51:01

NASA plans a new weapon in the fight against space insomnia: high-tech light-emitting diodes to replace the fluorescent bulbs in the U.S. section of the International Space Station.

About half of everyone who flies to space relies on sleep medication, at some point, to get some rest. For $11.2 million, NASA hopes to use the science of light to reduce astronauts' dependency on drugs.

According to NASA flight surgeon Smith Johnston, studies in Anchorage, Alaska showed that hospital staff made more medical errors during the darkest times of the year. The finding demonstrates that people have a day-night cycle that must be respected, even when they're doing the demanding work of space exploration.

"When you have normal light coming through the windows of stores, and schools, and hospitals, people do better. They function better," said Johnston, the lead physician for NASA's wellness program. [ Video: Do Astronauts Dream of Weightless Sheep? ]

Tough sleep in space
Sleep is no trivial matter in space. Astronauts generally get about six hours of shut-eye in orbit despite being allowed 8.5. Demanding schedules and unusual environments are among the factors that cause insomnia.

"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," Johnston said.

Over time, sleep deprivation can cause irritation, depression, sickness or mistakes. Any of these problems can be dangerous in the close, confined, pressurized quarters of the space station.

In an effort to address the problem, NASA plans to replace the orbiting laboratory's fluorescent bulbs with an array of LEDs switching between blueish, whitish and reddish light, according to the time of day. The changes can be programmed in by the ground, or the astronauts. The new light bulbs are due to be swapped in by 2016.

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Blue light stimulates the human brain best because people evolved to respond to the color of Earth's sky, experts say. When an astronaut's eyes are exposed to blue light, his or her body suppresses melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone. Blue also promotes the formation of melanopsin, a "protein pigment" that keeps people awake.

In simple terms, the color red reverses the process. Melatonin increases, making the astronaut sleepy, while melanopsin is suppressed.

"You can dial in a natural day-night cycle on the space station" with the new light arrays, which are being developed by Boeing, Johnston said.

It should work well, he added, unless astronauts look out the window at bedtime. They then run the risk of confusing their body clocks by exposing their eyes to natural sunlight reflecting off of Earth.

Sleep training
Technology can go only so far in solving sleep problems, Johnston said. This is why NASA prescribes good "sleep hygiene" for its crews before and during spaceflight.

Medications are used only as a last resort, and are tested extensively on Earth by each crew member. In case of emergency, astronauts must awaken easily even during the deepest stages of sleep.

The astronauts also get practice sleeping under difficult circumstances by virtue of their demanding preflight schedules, which include flights to Russia and Japan for training.

NASA works with the astronauts to minimize jet lag. Techniques that help for each crew member, such as wearing sunglasses on the plane and taking medications at a certain time, can then be used in orbit.

Groups on Earth will benefit from the research, too, especially shift workers or travellers fighting jet lag, Johnston said.

"Hopefully, we'll have spinoffs that other doctors can use, and the military can use for their flight surgeons."

Follow Elizabeth Howell @howellspace, or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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