What Does Space Smell Like?

Astro Whiff Space is full of smells, but mostly the burning odor of hydrocarbons. IMAGE BY NASA/Scott Kleinman/Getty Images

Astro Whiff Space is full of smells, but mostly the burning odor of hydrocarbons.
IMAGE BY NASA/Scott Kleinman/Getty Images

The final frontier smells a lot like a Nascar race-a bouquet of hot metal, diesel fumes and barbecue. The source? Dying stars, mostly. How did they work that one out I wonder?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. Source: Aust. Popular Science

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


 Booze In Space: Alcohol’s Quantum Secret


 It was only a few years ago when scientists discovered a gigantic cloud of booze floating around in space. This cloud measured 288 billion miles wide and contained gaseous methanol, which is generally found in antifreeze and some moonshine. This posed the question, though — how do the complex molecules of alcohols actually form in space?

Like everything considered impossible — or highly improbable — scientists looked to quantum mechanics for an explanation. Although the harsh and extremely cold environment of space makes its chemistry difficult to understand, a certain phenomenon, known as quantum tunnelling, could explain how alcohol is formed and destroyed in space.

Because space is so cold, science tells us that these frigid conditions should put a stop to chemical reactions as there isn’t enough energy present to rearrange chemical bonds. It had been recently suggested that dust grains could help these chemical reactions occur, but this theory was disproved last year when the highly reactive methoxy radical molecule was detected in space and could not be explained by this theory.

This is where quantum mechanics comes into play. Although chemical reactions do typically get slower as temperatures decrease, causing less energy to form, quantum tunnelling suggests that the incredibly cold temperatures of space are actually needed for complex molecules like alcohol to form.

“We suggest that an ‘intermediary product’ forms in the first stage of the reaction, which can only survive long enough for quantum tunnelling to occur at extremely cold temperatures,” said Professor Dwayne Heard, Head of the School of Chemistry at the University of Leeds, who led the research.

To test this theory, the researchers recreated the cold environment of space in a lab and then observed a reaction of the alcohol methanol and an oxidizing chemical at minus 210 degrees Celsius. They discovered that not only do these gases react to create methoxy radicals at this temperature, but the rate of reaction is 50 times faster than at room temperature.

The researchers are now investigating the reactions of other alcohols at such cold temperatures. In the meantime, we can dream about the day when we can sit in a bar on the Moon and drink a variety of boozes harvested from space.Via University of Leeds

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