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.
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it smells like all the air getting sucked out of you so fast you explode, of course.
Smells like Uranus farted... We all know it had to be said.
So, people pay all those millions to go up and take a few laps in a 150 billion dollar machine-actually, about 220 billion inflation adjusted dollars-anyway, spend all that money to go hang out in THE state of the art spacehab; and they don't even get to come home remembering that "new spacecraft smell"? I can smell a burnt steak or bad eggs without all that expense, thank you very much.
The point is our nose is a portable chemical analysis kit attached to our body. It has a very acute ability to convert trace airborne chemicals into smells which we can associate with real life experiences and once we know what these smells represent we can know at a whiff what the chemical composition is. By knowing the chemicals present we can also know what it smells like many millions of light years away. Now that is really interesting.
So would you agree that "a smell of petroleum prevails throughout"? :)
William James describes a man who got the experience from laughing-gas; whenever he was under its influence, he knew the secret of the universe, but when he came to, he had forgotten it. At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded. When completely recovered, he rushed to see what he had written. It was 'A smell of petroleum prevails throughout'.
I think that space smells like a nascar race because of all the rockets firing in the vicinity of the ISS and the fact that with no wind, scents stay for longer.
And how does one buy this smell from NASA? I, for one, would love to know how space smells like with my own two nostrils.
The Apollo Astronauts said that the dust on their space suits and the rocks they collected from the lunar surface smelled like spent gunpowder. Thanks for explaining why Popsci.