What Does Space Smell Like? Some Say Steak, Some Say Metal

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An astronaut takes a last look at Earth before entering orbit around the moon.

Simply put, space stinks. We aren’t quite sure like what, but we do know that the smell isn’t so pretty. Indeed, it’s so peculiar to astronauts that NASA wants to try and mimic it so that would-be space walkers know what they’re getting themselves — and their noses — into.

Without a strong sample size of folks who have undergone a space walk, they’ve found it rather tough to pinpoint the smell, with some former astronauts having called the odor akin to “seared steak,” “hot metal,” “welding fumes” or even “gunpowder.” Now, NASA has enlisted the help of London chemist Steve Pearce — pro bono, mind you — to recreate the smell, hoping it will help in training exercises.

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Pearce isn’t totally foreign to space smells, even though he’s never ventured there himself. He recently recreated the lingering smell of the Mir space station, a concoction of “sweaty feet and stale body odor, mix that odor with nail polish remover and gasoline… then you get close!” he told Discovery. Add in a touch of vodka — because, after all, they were Russian astronauts aboard Mir — to that, and the end result, he says was simply “horrible.”

“It certainly conveyed the sense that it wouldn’t have been nice to be trapped in Mir for too long,” he says. But that smell is only within the comfy confines of the space station. What are astronauts breathing in when they step out into that final frontier. Finding the smell of space may prove a bit tougher.

Mixing anecdotal discoveries together — Pearce says that seared steak and hot metal actually fall in line with each other and “lead us to conclude that the sensation is caused by some high-energy vibrations in particles brought back inside which mix with the air” — with the recent discovery of ethyl formate in space’s dust particles (that’s the same matter that gives raspberries their flavor), and there’s a strong starting point for recreating the possibly sulfurous-like smell of space.

Between the food options, tight quarters and smelly sensations, the life of an astronaut looks less and less glamorous.

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68 comments
RigelHolmes
RigelHolmes

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Popular Science magazine. By Lizzie Schiffman

The final frontier smells a lot like a Nascar race—a bouquet of hot metal, diesel fumes and barbecue. The source? Dying stars, mostly.

The by-products of all this rampant combustion are smelly compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These molecules “seem to be all over the universe,” says Louis Allamandola, the founder and director of the Astrophysics and Astrochemistry Lab at NASA Ames Research Center. “And they float around forever,” appearing in comets, meteors and space dust. These hydrocarbons have even been shortlisted for the basis of the earliest forms of life on Earth. Not surprisingly, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons can be found in coal, oil and even food.

Though a pure, unadulterated whiff of outer space is impossible for humans (it’s a vacuum after all; we would die if we tried), when astronauts are outside the ISS, space-borne compounds adhere to their suits and hitch a ride back into the station. Astronauts have reported smelling “burned” or “fried” steak after a space walk, and they aren’t just dreaming of a home-cooked meal.

The smell of space is so distinct that, three years ago, NASA reached out to Steven Pearce of the fragrance maker Omega Ingredients to re-create the odor for its training simulations. “Recently we did the smell of the moon,” Pearce says. “Astronauts compared it to spent gunpowder.”

Allamandola explains that our solar system is particularly pungent because it is rich in carbon and low in oxygen, and “just like a car, if you starve it of oxygen you start to see black soot and get a foul smell.” Oxygen-rich stars, however, have aromas reminiscent of a charcoal grill. Once you leave our galaxy, the smells can get really interesting. In dark pockets of the universe, molecular clouds full of tiny dust particles host a veritable smorgasbord of odors, from wafts of sweet sugar to the rotten-egg stench of sulfur.


patch
patch

To all the armchair scientists out there trying to debunk this... Considering the source is from people who have performed ACTUAL spacewalks, presumably people smarter and better trained that you and I, and considering NASA considers this real enough to pursue... You might consider that your opinion based on watching all the Star Trek episodes back to back 3 times in a row could possibly be... I don't know... flawed?

There are Stranger things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio...

First, Low Earth Orbit is not an empty vacuum. In addition to all the space junk we've let float around out there, and various small bodies that have been captured by earths gravitational field that we can identify and measure there are dust particles, gas particles, and many other bits and pieces of terrestrial and celestial origin floating around. Helium and Hydrogen alone have a tendency to escape the Earths Atmosphere and wander about, and if you've ever smelled hydrogen, you know its pretty foul. All these particles are being subjected to radiations and energies not normally found on Earth with our protective atmosphere, so there's no telling what kinds of reactions are taking place. Ever smell ozone after a storm? Its just Oxygen, just not the way you're used to smelling it.

Second, all these small particles tend to gravitate to  the nearest gravitational field, and when you are a 150kg body in freefall, you exert a fair amount of gravitational field. (see youtube videos of water drops orbiting a knitting needle) Anything with a fair amount of mass will attract small particles. Tools, guy in a space suit, cargo bay of a space shuttle, etc... Additionally, materials and assemblies we bring into space contain cavities and voids, some even microscopic, that contain various gasses and fluids that can be drawn to the surface when exposed to a vacuum environment. these are likely to cling to any object that produced them, or transfer to an adjacent gravitational body, transferring their odor as well.

Third, these particles will remain on the objects even after they are brought back into an atmosphere where an astronaut can breathe. So in essence, they will be smelling "Space" much in the same way a dog can smell cat on a person, even when that cat isn't in the room.. 

Lastly, until you can talk to a dog about what he smells, don't tell me he can't smell space. Odor detection is a vague science with many variables to take into account, so until we know WHAT the astronauts are smelling, its difficult to say if there is enough particulate of a particular type to be detectable, or what the origin of that  particulate is. I'm sure, if one of you wanted to put together an experiment to test the particulate accumulation of objects in space, NASA just might take you up on it, if it were feasible. After all, thats what space adventure is all about - new discovery. 

So - write up a proposal to prove A) Space has no smell, and is a complete vacuum, or B) space has unique particulates that accumulate on objects and can be identified and quantified. You might just end up in a scientific journal.

DerekBarolet1
DerekBarolet1

To the morons who can't read and think they are scientists. What they 'Nauts smell isn't while they are in their suits...It is After they come back int the airlock they bring particles back in with them and those particles who have the smell. And to all the MIT grads who specialize and work in space daily apparently...If it was so easily debunked by you as bad science and yet NASA says it happens....um...bad news for ya...you dont know as much as you htink.

Sandra Gatewood DeLoach
Sandra Gatewood DeLoach

My brain hurts as I try to understand how space would have smell as it is gas (I think). It would have to be matter of some sort? My brain hurts.

butterfly
butterfly

That means the space we have been thinking about is only the spatial and not the sensory dimension.

j0eschm0e
j0eschm0e

I would say it was what smell that was created when sunlight is hitting and reacting to the space suits. after they come back inside they smell what the suns radiation is doing to their suits.

Rick
Rick

TIME is now getting its stories from Yahoo.

Juan Carlos Herrera
Juan Carlos Herrera

How the hell do you smell space? Answer that one! Who has done it and lived to tell the tale? This article is so misleading. Space is empty matter..how the hell does it have a scent? OMG...I'm so over this! LOL

Nathan_Brazil
Nathan_Brazil

For all you "so smart" commentors, space is NOT a vacuum (it is only a vacuum compared to Earth's atmosphere). There is all sorts of dust, hydrogen and other molecules, and so forth. So those particles WOULD make it into the airlocks, or even into the circulation system in various ways. And they WOULD carry a smell. That should change from region to region with the various concentrations of dust and gasses, but it WOULD be possible to notice a distinctive smell in involved in space occupancy that is more involved than just staying inside the shuttle the whole time, for example.

adamrussell
adamrussell

The number of particles in space is so trivially small that even a dog could not smell it.  And no one has tried, obviously. I guarantee you, smell is not getting into the space suit from outer space.

Top Scientist
Top Scientist

 You really are an idiot.

The amount of matter in space is so small it's irrelevant. What they are smelling, half-wit, is NOT space. It's the spaceCRAFT or spaceSUIT they're in.

Nathan_Brazil
Nathan_Brazil

 Thanks for demonstrating your capacity for intelligent discourse! Seriously, because you are ignorant, you yell at others who are better informed on the subject.

What they are smelling (in the case of the subject of this admittedly unclear article) is contaminants from space in their environment. NASA has looked into this before, and that is why they are looking to qualify it for training.

In the case of the comments about MIR, those smells ARE the smells of the craft or equipment. But that is not what they are talking about. They are talking about the common smell that seems to permeate things that have been in contact with open space for a significant time. It is a smell that is common regardless of other smells, and it is nothing new, and it is independent from expected machine and body odors.

And the amount of matter in space depends upon where you are. In the case of where these observations are made (LEO, like around the ISS) the amount of matter is enough to create serious drag on the ISS.

adamrussell
adamrussell

More likely the smell on things exposed to space is the material itself outgassing.  If there was something foreign coming from space they could (and certainly would) test it to find out what they were being exposed to.

Ron Taylor
Ron Taylor

It would seem no different than scuba diving. When diving, you are encapsualted within your equipment. You smell whatever is generated from the tank, mask and regulator. Although you are in the ocean, for obvious reasons, you cannot smell it. I would think space walking is bassically similar in comparission.

Jaime Soltys
Jaime Soltys

Space, by its very definition, cannot smell...it's a vacuum and absence of particles. Epic sigh, Time. Technically, there's a molecule or two out there per gajillion cubic centimers of space, but it would take a mythical, vacuum-breathing space dog with a helluva nose to detect any kind of scent. Kudos to the author for the misleading title that garnered my click and comment. Mission successful.

cppguy16
cppguy16

Space is near vacuum, it doesn't smell at all. Nonsense. What smells is perhaps the space suit and the air in it. They should be able to reproduce that here on earth.

Michael Wellman
Michael Wellman

So that's what it would have been like if I had invented the Smell-o-scope.  A man can dream, though... a man can dream.

Rossum76
Rossum76

I would think nothing smells like nothing. Space is a vacuum and considering there is no air in space I don't understand how it could have a smell. The space suite on the other hand is something that can smell. It's not like the air leaves the suite and is reincorporated into the breathing apprentice. I would think any smell comes from the suite itself and the materials it is made of or whatever chemicals they use to scrub the CO2 out of the air.

Barry
Barry

How can they smell with helmets on.....?????

Tam Ha
Tam Ha

What this article does not state that is provided else where is how 

astronauts are smelling it.  On the ISS at least, it's when the astronauts are in the airlock and in the process of removing their suits.

Dave Flick
Dave Flick

Apparently, the human race is indeed doomed.  Such idiocy abounds in these comments.

ATPMSD
ATPMSD

What a load of bull! What editor allowed this to be posted?

chenzo
chenzo

Space smells like chicken.

James Schrumpf
James Schrumpf

I sure wouldn't try it around Uranus.

(Just couldn't resist.)

Craig Pierson
Craig Pierson

Such BS.  How would you smell space... If they are referring to smells while in their suits or on board a spacecraft I can guarantee they are not smelling space.  More like their own BO,bad breath or the machinery around them.

Dave Flick
Dave Flick

Yay, another scientific illiterate trying to chime in.

oldopiner
oldopiner

Ooooh that smell

Can't you smell that smell?

- Lynyrd Skynyrd ("That Smell")

jeepers001
jeepers001

Wow - this just described the smell in my suburban after 7 girls from daughter's soccer team left their shin pads in the closed vehicle on a hot summer day

jeepers001
jeepers001

Wow - this article described the smell in my suburban after 7 girls from my daughter's soccer team left their shin guards in the closed vehicle for 2 hours on a 90 degree summer day.

hektorsolisjr
hektorsolisjr

i was under the assumption that space suits were/are air tight sealed...how can they smell space?? 

hektorsolisjr
hektorsolisjr

I was under the assumption the space suits were/are air tight sealed...how can they smell space?? 

Clark_Nova
Clark_Nova

 They can't. This is junk science.

Dave Flick
Dave Flick

Yeah, because air-tight = impenetrable.  Maybe in your limited view it does, but there are many, many things that can pass through solid matter with no issue: including the particles that were mentioned in the article.

The Swigz
The Swigz

So... why does this matter?  For all the space tourists that are flying to and from the moon?

Donn Garrison
Donn Garrison

Sounds like an astronaut farted and is trying to pass the blame.

Donn Garrison
Donn Garrison

What idiot wrote this? Space is a vacuum and has no to little mater particles floating around. To "smell" space would be to smell whatever air you involved with the experiment. Jeeze, where did you go to school? Mexico?

echapa12
echapa12

YES.. and thath is why I´m  involved in scientifc adventures..¿ Don´t tell me ..you are still  shoving  dirt at the same  ranch ?..

Dave Flick
Dave Flick

Matter is not the only thing in the universe.  You're forgetting about energy.

Tom Zentra
Tom Zentra

Tim Newcomb of Time Magazine, tell us how many astronauts have taken off their spacesuit helmet and breathed space.

Gas Predictor
Gas Predictor

There was an article by astronaut Dr. Don Pettit some years ago entitled "The Smell of Space."  You might google that.  I'll try posting a link, but you know how that goes.

Anyway, Dr. Pettit describes, not space itself, but an odor that lingers on tools and spacesuits and such after they return from the vacuum of space.

In an article I wrote myself, I speculate that it has to do with extreme aridity.  (Google "Palpable Aridity")