Does space have a smell

Does Space Have a Smell?

June 14, 2022 - Lou Farrell

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Space has quite a few identifying characteristics. It’s cold and dark. There are solar winds and radiation and plenty of tiny pieces of debris ready to tear a hole in your spacesuit. With everything we know about space, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about this harsh environment. What would you smell if it was possible to stick your head out of an airlock and survive? Does space have a smell?  

What The Astronauts Say

While it isn’t possible for us to stick our heads out of an airlock and survive the experience thanks to the cold vacuum of space, astronauts have spent plenty of time outside of their ships in space suits. When they return to the ship’s interior, many have reported that the smell of outer space clings to their suits, giving us a glimpse of what the vacuum might smell like.

Astronauts have compared the smell of space to things like seared steak or hot metal, which seems strange when considering how cold it is up there. After a mission in 2003, astronaut Don Pettit had this to say: 

“It is hard to describe this smell: it is definitely not the olfactory equivalent to describing the palette sensations of some new food as ‘tastes like chicken.’ The best description I can come up with is metallic; a rather pleasant sweet metallic sensation.” 

This burnt steak smell is likely because our solar system, in particular, is rich in carbon and low in oxygen. Oxygen-rich systems might smell more like a charcoal grill, while other solar systems with different chemical compositions could smell like anything from sugar to sulfur. 

What the Chemistry Tells Us

Space might look empty, but it is full of different elements and the chemical compounds that they form. These compounds can give us a hint of what space might smell or taste like if we can take a sample. In the center of the Milky Way Galaxy is a massive dust cloud that astronomers have dubbed Sagittarius B2. In addition to being composed of various types of alcohol — including both methanol and ethanol — researchers in 2009 used spectroscopy to determine that the dust cloud also contains ethyl formate. 

Ethyl formate is an organic molecule that we have here on Earth. It is responsible for giving raspberries their flavor and providing rum its distinctive scent. 

The presence of methanol and other toxic chemicals means that we wouldn’t want to make a cocktail out of Sagittarius B2, but mixing some rum and raspberry liquor might give us a better idea of what space smells and tastes like.

Replicating The Smell of Space on Earth

People have been trying to replicate the smell of outer space since astronauts first noticed it clinging to their spacesuits after a spacewalk. In 2008, NASA contacted a chemist named Steve Pearce of Omega Ingredients to create a perfume that duplicated the smell of outer space, as described by those who’ve been there. The goal of Eau de Space was to give NASA a tool to help astronauts better understand what they might experience in space before they ever leave the atmosphere. 

Another perfumery created the smell of outer space with a mixture of birch tar, for its campfire smell, helichrysum flower because it emits a ‘hot metal meatiness’ and anise for the ozone-like acridness that some astronauts have reported. While it may offer a perfect mimicry of the smell of outer space, it helps to paint a clearer picture for those who live here on EarthEarth.

Does Space Have a Smell?

So, does outer space have a smell? The short answer is yes. The long answer depends on where you are in the galaxy, what type of solar system you’re in and the exact chemical composition of the space around you. The consensus is that space smells like seared steak, raspberries and rum and that doesn’t sound like a bad combination.

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Lou Farrell

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