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Noise problems on space station and missions to Mars

Noise in space is a major problem. This is especially true for long range duration on the International Space Station and future missions to Mars. According to American astronauts, the decibel levels in the Russian portion of the international space station are damaging their hearing (The Los Angeles Times, “U.S. Astronauts Sound Off on Space Noise, Dec. 2, 2001).

Recent data indicate that noise levels on the International Space Station can average more than 70 decibels and that scheduled sleep episodes have recorded over 90 decibels (Risk of Performance Errors due to Sleep Loss, Circadian Desynchronization, Fatigue, and Work Overload, Human Research Program Requirements Document).

There are several implications and consequences from astronauts enduring noise.

1. Physiological

A. Heart

There was a large scale study (based on 4.6 million adults across Switzerland). After factoring for air pollution, etc. the researchers found that both the level and duration of aircraft noise drove up the risk of lethal heart attack. One of the researchers in the article pointed out that noise itself regardless of the sources affects blood pressure. Another researcher noted that even if something is not that loud or disturbing, it can become really bothersome if not turned off. He also said that the classic stress response includes a rise in heart rate and blood pressure and although it isn’t usually a problem when short and infrequent bursts, this can lead to significant wear and tear if it continues daily. Finally according to the researchers report in the journal Epidemiology, people exposed to a daily average of at least 60 decibels of noise had a 30 percent greater risk of dying from a heart attack compared with those exposed to less than 45 decibels (Epidemiology online, September 27, 2010).

Another article stated, “Most agree that acute exposure to levels greater than 80-85 dB and chronic exposure to levels greater than 65 dB can cause an increase in blood viscosity, vasoconstriction, heart rate, and blood pressure (Chertoff, Environmental Health, Spring 2010).”

B. Hearing

Jay Buckey, a former astronaut now at Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, New Hampshire, said that both temporary and permanent hearing loss were recorded after flights on the Soviet and Russian Salyut stations, even for stays as short as seven days. The loss was usually at higher frequencies (Young, K., New Scientist, June, 2006)

2. Sleep

Professor David Dinges, Department of Psychiatry at University of Pennsylvania, says sleep is critical no matter where humans go and if they don’t get it, performance deteriorates rapidly. When people are awake more than 18 hours, they tend to have psycho-motor impairments equivalent to when they are inebriated (Documentary, “Mars Uprising,” 2007).

Bonnet et al. (2005) found that the discrepancy between sleep in flight and ground-based studies suggests that “not only is sleep quantity reduced during space flight, but also that the restorative component of sleep may be disrupted in space, which may further increase the likelihood that waking neurobehavioral performance deficits will occur.” (Whitmire et al., Jan 2009, Risk of Performance Errors due to Sleep Loss, Circadian Desynchronization, Fatigue, and Work Overload)

Barger and Czeisler (2008), suggest that the amount and quality of in-flight sleep is reduced in comparison to terrestrial sleep behavior for multiple reasons, one of which is noise.

Deprived of sleep, the risk of accidents on the Mars mission will be high.

3. Stress

Noise tends to produce stress. There are numerous environmental variables which can, under certain circumstances, either provoke aggression or increase the likelihood of its occurrence. Astronauts are carefully screened and selected, as was former astronaut Lisa Nowak, who was charged with attempted kidnapping. This may seem difficult to imagine, but putting six astronauts in about the same the space as a small apartment on a 12 month journey to Mars and back that has never been done before, would not be the time to discover in hindsight that this is a problem that had never been addressed. Noise levels above 80 dB are associated with both an increase in aggressive behavior and a decrease in behavior helpful to others (Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague: Adverse Health Effects of Noise, Southern Medical Journal, 2007). This is not something that NASA would want to deal with on the Mars mission.

Possible Solution:

There is a device that may be able to help provide at least a partial contribution to the solution.

It is a noise level alert system . Astronauts set the threshold noise level so that a notification alert can be given when the threshold noise level is exceeded. For example, if it is decided that the astronauts should be notified when the ambient noise level reaches 75 decibels, then an audio voice system or other alert modes can warn the astronauts when that level is reached. The voice system is programmed to be just above the current ambient noise level so it can be heard.

This can be used to help the astronauts to know when to use ear protection devices and can help them sleep better. The device can also be used to warn the astronauts to use ear protection during waking hours. The threshold can be set to different levels depending on whether the astronauts are sleeping or awake.

In addition, the device could measure how many times specific decibel levels are exceeded and when, which would provide invaluable data for NASA in determining the effects of noise on astronauts.

The idea may sound simple, but it would be one more tool that can at least provide a partial solution to the problem.

The device is patent pending.


Submitted by 2 years ago

Comments (4)

  1. MDT

    You have similar issue with planes, cars and submarines.

    The space station is mainly build from metal that conducts vibration and resonate any noise all over.

    When I grew up I had access to many electronics and home appliances made in USSR. Very sturdy and long lasting but noisy - oh boy! Check the Tupolev ratings are some of the most nosy airplanes.

    How to fix this is hard to say. True that with a warning system and noise reduction headphones is a good first step but it's just a Band-Aid in my opinion.

    More efficient will be to minimize the amount of moving parts that generates noise. Insulate the ones you can't with noise and vibration absorbent material that is space graded. Isolate portions of the equipment with buffer zones that will absorb and possible stop vibration and noise travel trough the entire structure. If I'm not mistaken when the ESA ATV arrived to the space station some of the crew prefer to spend time and sleep inside due to the welcomed extra space, privacy and more quiet place. I know that there is way more equipment on the rest of the ISS than on the ATV. I remember making me sad the news that the ATV was de-orbited and burned when it could have been left attached as a sleeping quarters if that would have made it easier to live up there for the crew. I think it was self sufficient for the most part.

    2 years ago
  2. Well, I didnt knew so deeply about hearing problems but I feel that we r enough advanced to develop instruments to protect r ears from getting damaged!!!!

    2 years ago
  3. Interesting topic. Thanks for posting this.

    2 years ago
  4. If everyone wears protective gears and noise cancellation equipements how will unusual noise be detected the causes for those unusual noises rectified either from earth or by the space travellers. I think the frequences on the noise cancellation equipements should be set as to cancel only usual noise and reduce the level of noise by unusual noises. Then another problem would rise, how do we make sure that unusual noise that are not related to the space vehicle do not affect the crew badly. For example a big bang in space could temporarily impair the hearing ability of the travelers ? I think the best option would be to have different noise cancellation equipments on board and let the travelers choose which one to use and when. In critical situation there should be alert and recommendations on the equipments to put on and on what levels to set the equipments. There should be noise free rooms for sleeping or resting.

    10 days ago

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