June 10, 2014

"Space has a smell."

"And I don’t mean inside the space station. When a visiting vehicle docks with the space station, there is ‘space’ between the two vehicles. Once the pressure is equalized and the hatch is opened, you have this metallic ionization-type smell. It’s quite unique and very distinct.”

27 comments:

traditionalguy said...

In space there is no atmosphere with planet earth's magnetic field shielding the human nose from cosmic ray smells.

Or maybe the angels cook with garlic.

KLDAVIS said...

Key words: "Once the pressure is equalized..."

That's a mechanical process, which likely introduces the smell. That, or he's reacting to the absence of something and thinking it's a new thing. There's nothing to smell in a vacuum.

Sigivald said...

Sounds more like "the smell of breathable atmosphere reacting with metal that was just in hard vacuum".

Space per se can't have much of a smell, because smell is stuff; and that stuff is also going to be different one you put it in a breathable atmosphere to let it be "smelled", because oxygen is ... reactive.

Intensely so.

Peter said...

So, what IS the reason for the international space station?

Since the ISS is in low earth orbit, wouldn't it be possible to build a few robots, and teleoperate them from the ground? Thereby greatly reducing (if not eliminating) the need to send people up there?

Of course, if we did that we wouldn't get to hear that "Space stinks" and "astronauts get stressed" and "space food isn't horrible" and "astronauts sweat" and all those other juicy human-interest nuggets.

But the Cold War is indeed over, and with it the use of human space flight for national prestige. After all, if the point was national prestige then presumably we'd still have man-rated launch vehicles to send our astronauts up in, instead of buying transportation services from our frenemy Putin.

So, what IS the reason for the international space station, and why are we still supporting it? What does it do for us that couldn't be done at lower cost with robots?

LarsPorsena said...

Maybe he got dark matter up his nose.

Ann Althouse said...

"Space per se can't have much of a smell, because smell is stuff; and that stuff is also going to be different one you put it in a breathable atmosphere to let it be "smelled", because oxygen is ... reactive."

Isn't it more that "smell" is something perceived in the brain through sensors in the nose. Maybe when we smell nothing it is sensing what is neutral in our earthly environment and to be deprived of that "stuff" produces a reaction in the nose that the brain interprets/misinterprets as a strange smell.

I say this as a person who has become progressively "blind" to smell over the last 10 years. I had smell hallucinations at the beginning of the decline, intermittent weird chemical-floral experiences of smell.

Larry J said...

When a satellite is launched, it undergoes outgassing for quite some time before everything stabilizes. Perhaps they're smelling outgassing products, or perhaps thruster spew.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

I say this as a person who has become progressively "blind" to smell over the last 10 years.

Maybe you would enjoy traveling to Venice...

Ann Althouse said...

@Victor Ulmer Thanks for the Emerson!

For a funnier version of that sort of thing, there's Mark Twain's "Innocents Abroad."

The Crack Emcee said...

"Space has a smell."

AND IT'S FUNKY,...

SteveR said...

As has been pointed out, space doesn't have a smell, however the perception of a "smell" comes about in the process described. But its an imprecise term sort of like "climate change". People with IPhone/Vine mentality don't get that in depth.

Original Mike said...

Sigivald said: "Sounds more like "the smell of breathable atmosphere reacting with metal that was just in hard vacuum"."

Space can not smell. Maybe it's Althouse's explanation, but I think Sigivald's explanation is more likely. In fact, it's hard to imagine that there isn't interesting chemical/physical processes going on at the surfaces inside the airlock.

Ann Althouse said...

"'You just gave me an idea for a very dark satire: A self-help book for slaves.' ROTFLMAO!!!!"

I'm glad you can laugh at that. You just gave me the idea for an unprintable New Yorker-style cartoon: 2 slaves working out in the field, and one says to the other: "Some day we'll look back on this and laugh."

Original Mike said...

"So, what IS the reason for the international space station?"

The ISS was built so that the shuttle had somewhere to go. It was a terrible waste of money that could have funded lots of first-class terrestrial and solar system research.

Gahrie said...

So, what IS the reason for the international space station, and why are we still supporting it? What does it do for us that couldn't be done at lower cost with robots?

He who controls the orbitals, controls the planet. I'm not real comfortable living on a planet where the Russians dominate orbit.

If the U.S. Air Force is not flying an operational space plane, two things need to happen:

1)Every three and four star general needs to be immediately fired

2)The Air Force needs to develop this capability.

We don't need nuclear weapons anymore. All we need is a space plane (only minimally more capable than Virgin Galactic's) and a hunk of iron to drop from it. Note we also need a spacefighter to stop someone else's plane from dropping a rock on us.

jr565 said...

I love the smell of space in the morning. It smells like metal"

LCB said...

The vacuum of space cannot smell. But the "stuff" in space CAN smell when introduced to an atmosphere. Space is full of "stuff". Many a scientist makes his living studying this "stuff".

Could be the heat of moving at speed in the atmosphere has made the outside shell of the ship give off an odor once that part of the ship is in the air.

Rob said...

To get astronaut Mike Hopkins back from the Russian rocketeers, we had to trade Yakov Smirnoff and the entire cast of "The Americans."

The Crack Emcee said...

"Some day we'll look back on this and laugh."

Wow - that's good. Are you going to run with it?

Tibore said...

In space, no one can hear you sniff...

EDH said...

What Does Space Smell Like?

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.

Ipso Fatso said...

Sun Ra “Space Is The Place” I am cooler than Crack.

traditionalguy said...

Does this explains why the Russian dogs wanted to go up again and again before the Yuri Gagarin guy got to ride the first human orbit.

Ann Althouse said...

Hey, I put 2 of my comments in the wrong post. Crack saw it anyway.

And of course, I'm not going to draw that cartoon. Feel free to use the punch line.

Mark said...

Low Earth Orbit is emphatically not in a vacuum state. Gas densities are very low and the level of ionization is relatively high (everything from ultraviolet on up will ionize hydrogen, which is the predominate component of the "atmosphere" within the ISS orbit.)

This isn't meant to negate the points about outgassing, both within airlock mechanisms and from the station components themselves. Just correcting the common fallacy that "space is a vacuum." Space has a density continuum all the way out to the heliopause and beyond.

This may seem like quibbling (okay, it is quibbling) when you consider orbital space is a better vacuum than most places on earth can create, but the idea that "space" normalized to a breathable pressure might have an odor isn't far-fetched at all. The human nose is incredibly sensitive (in most people; sorry for your loss Ann). Only the idealization that "space is a vacuum" makes it seem so.

Moral: Avoid all absolute statements. ;)

Emil Blatz said...

If you fart in space, and there is no one within 142,000 miles, does it make a sound?

Nichevo said...

I say this as a person who has become progressively "blind" to smell over the last 10 years. I had smell hallucinations at the beginning of the decline, intermittent weird chemical-floral experiences of smell.
6/10/14, 12:56 PM


Brain tumor? It might explain a lot actually. Please get an mri.