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Space Science

Outer Space has a Smell 274

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the anosmia-sucks-in-space-too dept.
repapetilto writes "ISS Science Officer Don Pettit reports in his journal that outer space gives off a smell best described as "a rather pleasant sweet metallic sensation." Kind of odd considering smell is supposed to be due to volatilized chemical compounds."
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Outer Space has a Smell

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  • by suso (153703) * on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @11:16AM (#22406116) Homepage Journal
    Too bad the vacuum of space will suck that smell right out of your nose.
  • Sounds Like Ozone (Score:5, Interesting)

    by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @11:17AM (#22406126) Journal
    When I was younger, I also arc wielded to fix various metal things around farms. I too noticed this sweet, metallic smell.

    When I was a teenager I read a lot of short stories. Especially all the sci-fi & horror ones like Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick or Stephen King. I don't recall which one it was but a character had a train set that had a short in it on the tracks. The arcing electricity would give off this same smell. I learned through this short story that this is an incidental way to produce ozone (O3) [wikipedia.org], a greenhouse gas. And that the smell is in fact a low amount of ozone. Perhaps you've detected it at the dentists office or while operating an engine? From the Wikipedia entry:

    Ozone may be formed from O2 by electrical discharges and by action of high energy electromagnetic radiation. Certain electrical equipment generate significant levels of ozone. This is especially true of devices using high voltages, such as ionic air purifiers, laser printers, photocopiers, and arc welders. Electric motors using brushes can generate ozone from repeated sparking inside the unit. Large motors that use brushes, such as those used by elevators or hydraulic pumps, will generate more ozone than smaller motors.
    I hope he doesn't write himself off as crazy if he did detect ozone. Or at least investigate where it could have come from. If there's tiny molecules of ozone floating around in orbit of the earth, I'm certain that would be scientifically interesting. Perhaps he should test the properties of these materials when exposed to ozone, do they attract the molecules? Or perhaps he should put the materials in a vacuum here on earth for a bit and then pull them out and see if he detects the same smell?

    The human nose can be an extremely strong tool for some individuals, perhaps this is more than just psychosomatic? It would drive me crazy to never investigate this if I were in his shoes. It may seem trivial but sometimes a peculiar notion is what drives scientists make a novel discovery ... or waste lots and lots of time.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @11:27AM (#22406304)

      If there's tiny molecules of ozone floating around in orbit of the earth, I'm certain that would be scientifically interesting.

      Indeed. I'm sure scientists would be astounded to discover that there is a "layer" around the Earth comprised of "ozone".

    • by MooseByte (751829)

      "perhaps this is more than just psychosomatic?"

      I would imagine so - even if somehow you were able to "smell" a complete vacuum, your own body (including the nasal passages themselves) will be giving off odors. If they are so subtle as to normally be overwhelmed by the usual natural background, that may be your first chance to detect them.

      Based on all the sweaty hero-in-space-attacking-monolithic-fortress-of-evil-guy footage, however, I predict that most of the time space is rather sweaty and disgusti

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by piojo (995934)

        "perhaps this is more than just psychosomatic?"

        I would imagine so - even if somehow you were able to "smell" a complete vacuum, your own body (including the nasal passages themselves) will be giving off odors. If they are so subtle as to normally be overwhelmed by the usual natural background, that may be your first chance to detect them.

        Well, we get used to whatever's around. When I went backpacking for a few weeks in the desert of Utah, I stopped smelling my own B.O., but I gained the ability to smell peanut butter through two plastic bags, ten feet away. It was pretty sweet. I'm sure the same increasing sensitivity happens to astronauts who live in a mostly sterile, boring, environment.

    • Re:Sounds Like Ozone (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ivan256 (17499) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @11:30AM (#22406330)
      That smell is also really bad for you. The Ozone oxidizes the inside of your nose and throat. If you breathe in a large quantity, you'll get a sore throat fairly quickly, and can die after several minutes in a room with a high concentration.

      I have a commercial ozone generator that I bought to use after my basement flooded to kill the mold. I had it on a timer for a while to run for an hour at night. Power went out, the timer got offset, and I went down there during the day while it was on. One lungful and I had a sore throat for a week.

      • by Arthur B. (806360)
        Not to mention that it stinks. I don't know about you, but I can't stand the smell of ozone, not even a tiny bit.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by ivan256 (17499)
          Same here.

          Luckily it is also short lived. It rapidly breaks down into plain oxygen, and the smell goes away. I don't understand, though, how people can be in a room with one of those poorly made Ionic Breeze devices. They generate just enough ozone to drive me nuts. I don't even like walking by the outside of a Brookstone/Sharper Image store in the mall because of them.
    • by gwait (179005) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @11:33AM (#22406376)
      Since there's an awful lot of charged particles, micrometeorites, and high energy photons bathing the astronauts while on a space walk,
      perhaps the smell is coming from all the ionized molecules on their suits and gear.

      Also, the space station is not entirely out of the atmosphere, is it? Isn't the top layer a lot of ionized gas as well - due to the same radiation sources?

      It would be interesting to compare the molecules per cubic meter in the ISS airlock with the number of molecules per cubic meter a human nose can detect..

      I hope he does continue to research this curiosity!
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by tenco (773732)
        Since there's an awful lot of charged particles, micrometeorites, and high energy photons bathing the astronauts while on a space walk, perhaps the smell is coming from all the ionized molecules on their suits and gear.

        Origin of Ozone in the Ozone layer [wikipedia.org]

    • by Kamineko (851857) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @11:43AM (#22406504)

      If there's tiny molecules of ozone floating around in orbit of the earth, I'm certain that would be scientifically interesting.

      Ozone... around the Earth?

      You mean like some kind of... layer?

      (Yes, I know, I know. Couldn't help it. :P)
      • by tgatliff (311583)
        OK.. Let me get this straight. After over 40 years in space this is the first guy to bring this up?? Hm... Smells fishy if you ask me..

        • by myvirtualid (851756) <pwwnow@ g m a i l . c om> on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @03:46PM (#22410206) Journal

          After over 40 years in space this is the first guy to bring this up?? Hm... Smells fishy if you ask me..

          Reminds me of an anecdote from one the Apollo 17 astronauts: He noticed that moon dust smelled and wondered why no one had mentioned it before. Eventually he realized it was a cultural thing: In pilot culture, "out of the ordinary" can get you grounded, where "out of the ordinary" is what science culture is all about. And the early Apollo astronauts were all pilots, mostly test pilots.

          It only takes one curious person to open a new door and most of us don't notice the door is there, even if we pass it by every day of our lives.

    • It doesn't take a short (per se) -- the rotating wheels of the model train continually make-and-break contact with the rails because of surface oxides, and, more fundamentally, that you have a rolling electrical contact. Every model train I played with when I was a kid exuded the smell of ozone. We'd use rags soaked in isopropyl alcohol to clean off the tracks on N-gauge railroads because the contact problems were much worse and would cause trains to stop, while big Lionel O-gauge railroads were comparati
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by modecx (130548)
      Ozone, to me, has a distinctly un-sweet smell. I mean, stick your head over a photo-copier going at full speed and you get ozone. I can't stand the stuff for any length of time, really.

      I also arc-weld, and do all sorts of other welding, and I think the sweet smell you noticed is much more likely vaporization of the flux, filler rod, and base material, surface contaminants (or any combination of the above) than it is to be of ozone, because those are produced in much higher quantities than ozone, and here
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by RDW (41497)
      'The human nose can be an extremely strong tool for some individuals, perhaps this is more than just psychosomatic? It would drive me crazy to never investigate this if I were in his shoes.'

      The lunar astronauts have several theories on the (perhaps related) phenomenon of the smell of 'fresh' moondust, and seem quite interested in having this investigated further:

      http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2006/30jan_smellofmoondust.htm [nasa.gov]
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by gnick (1211984)

      ...this is an incidental way to produce ozone (O3)

      Arcing also produces a minuscule amount of tritium [wikipedia.org]. Normally, this would be completely harmless (Yes, it's a beta emitter and shouldn't be inhaled in large quantities, but a single small arc only generates a couple of molecules...) The exception to this is when you find yourself working with spark-gap switches [wikipedia.org] and somebody makes a tritium joke around an ES&H rep. It then becomes hugely hazardous because you'll find yourself spending hours doing paperwork and trying to explain radiation basics to li

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by davidsyes (765062) *
      Proto-Captain Garrovic(k) will impressed... as long as you don't have an "Obsession" that wastes hemoglobin
  • by El Yanqui (1111145) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @11:18AM (#22406144) Homepage
    Professor Farnsworth already proved it with the Smell-O-Scope.
  • by dkleinsc (563838) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @11:18AM (#22406148) Homepage
    Don Pettit: The guy from whom Prof Farnsworth stole the plans to the smelloscope.
  • smelloscope (Score:3, Funny)

    by GreatRedShark (880833) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @11:19AM (#22406180)
    So does this mean the Professor's smelloscope could one day be a reality? Gee, I'd hate to small Uranus.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @11:20AM (#22406186)
    It is not 'space' one smells, but the gas from materials when exposed to high vacuum.
     
    • by tomhudson (43916)

      Outer Space has a Smell

      It is not 'space' one smells, but the gas from materials when exposed to high vacuum.
      Dammit, I told you not to play "Pull my finger" while wearing a space suit!

      Houston, we have a problem. Send up some Bean-O.

    • I didn't fart. Maybe you're smelling the vacuum of space?
  • Try a little less Old Spice before putting on the spacesuit...
  • ...the inner space. Now that smells really weird!
  • I hear (Score:2, Funny)

    by pedropolis (928836)
    The outer rim of Uranus also has a smell. It's described variously as a musky, pungent, zesty enterprise, with a splash of sulfur, that causes dizziness and nausea.

    And now... ladies and gentlemen... Carrot Top!!!
  • It drives the nurses wild on NCC-1701.
  • Huh? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Ancient_Hacker (751168) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @11:27AM (#22406302)
    I'd hope our space travelers would have a skosh better grasp of physics. The vacuum of near space is darn good, certainly lower than the vapor pressure of most anything we loft into space. Experience with evacuating radio and TV tubes says you can get up to 500 cm^3 of gas out of every few square inches of metal. I would not be surprised if he's smelling the outgassing of items from our earthly spehere, not the "smell of space".
    • Exactly. He's smelling the effects of the exposing the suit chemicals to vacuum. This story is really stupid.
      • by trb (8509)
        I agree that the story is silly and that he's smelling outgassing of some material. It's also silly to say that this is what space smells like. OK, professor, what does Earth smell like? Roses? Armpit? Garlic sauteed in butter?
      • Come on... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by majorgoodvibes (1228026) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @01:22PM (#22408050)
        The guy is one of the 0.001% that actually WORKS IN FREAKING SPACE. He's obviously qualified to do what he does. He wrote an innocuous little blog entry about some funny little thought that crossed his mind in the middle of WORKING IN FREAKING SPACE. It's not scientific, it's not meant to be something you reference in your term paper on "Olfactory Sensations in Vacuum or Near-Vacuum Conditions", it's not being submitted as proof that NASA needs more funding. It just is what it is.

        Someone else said this wasn't "worthy" of Slashdot. Maybe that's true but it doesn't make it stupid. It's just one of those millions of things that doesn't require enormous analysis. Blame whoever submitted it and gave it the headline.
    • by SharpFang (651121)
      That's only true for taking momentary volumetric number of particles - but they aren't stationary, they travel at a very high speed. Particles carried by solar wind may be that rare but they can be caught up in the suits - the suits get exposed to lots of the 'void matter'.

      Just like during sand storm, a cubic meter of air may contain a handful of sand at any time, but capture all sand that passes through a trap a square meter big carried by a 100km/h wind, and you'll have tons of it in no time.

      Besides, thes
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by edittard (805475)

      Experience with evacuating radio and TV tubes says you can get up to 500 cm^3 of gas out of every few square inches of metal.
      Bravo! Not only mixing imperial and metric but areas and volume to boot!

      Sir, I take my hat off to you.
      • >Bravo! Not only mixing imperial and metric but areas and volume to boot!

        Well that apparent clusterfarge is actually apropos-- The RCA handbook uses cm^3, and the tube in question was rerally close to having a square inch of exposed plate surface.

        And gas absorption is a surface phenomenon, so inches^2 does happen to be the right dimensionality.

    • RTFA - it's really short, and was written in 2003, so you should have had plenty of time...

      Of course vacuum doesn't have a smell, and it's much more likely that the smell is from the way space suits react to being in vacuum than gasses wafting up from earth getting stuck on them. Or it could be from some of those funky molds that grow on the space station. But that's not really relevant, because he's not writing about physics, he's writing about the experience of being in a space-ship, and smell is one of

    • by hey! (33014)

      I'd hope our space travelers would have a skosh better grasp of physics.


      Indeed. Just like we'd hope the people posting to /. woudld have a skosh better grasp of RTFA ;-)
  • ...it's not "the smell of space" but the smell of something that's just been in space. Most organic substances have some volatile compounds in them, and as soon as something is manufactured, the volatiles near the surface begin evaporating; before long, the surface is odorless. Now put it in vacuum, and the volatiles in the interior begin diffusing toward the region of zero pressure, passing through the surface on the way -- so the surface winds up having its volatile concentration restored.

    rj

  • It may be shocking to some, but some VERY not-so-good-for-you solvents give off strange and oddly pleasing smells.

    I clearly remember using trichlorethelene(sp?) as a teenager working on cars and remember the smell being not-so-bad. (Don't ask how we got it.) Automobile coolant is another one. Grease car owners also have the pleasure of french fries smell.

    Burning auto brakes is gross though.
  • by walterbyrd (182728) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @11:38AM (#22406452)
  • by Jafafa Hots (580169) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @11:38AM (#22406454) Homepage Journal
    "The Sweet Smell of Space" sounds like something Heinlein would have written.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by sm62704 (957197)
      from Amazon.com [amazon.com]:Starfighters of Adumar (Star Wars: X-Wing, Book 9)

      Funniest SW Book Ever, October 18, 2001
      By Handofthrawn "handofthrawn45" (Cleveland, OH) - See all my reviews

      Ah, the sweet smell of space combat and politics mixed with witty banter. While this is by no means the best SW book ever written, it's certainly a very enjoyable read. I've been a big fan of the X-wing series and both Stackpole and Allston. The book starts off on a very nice note: Wedge breaks up with Qwi. Ahh.... Allston must have jo

  • What's the likelihood this smell comes from propellants used by the shuttle and soyuz? Seems to me since his only interaction with this smell is from spacesuits that have only had contact with the "air" around the outside of the ISS.
  • by Junior J. Junior III (192702) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @11:46AM (#22406540) Homepage
    Smell is caused by chemicals in the air triggering olfactory receptors in our sense organs and causing sense data to be interpreted by the brain as an odor.

    If you take away the sense data, the brain is still interpreting something, namely the absence of data. It could be that this odor is simply how the brain handles a null dataset.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      Yeah. I was thinking, after reading the title of TFA, that it was the reverse/absence of smell he was detecting. Don't try this at home, but if you clean your bathroom with a too high concentration of bleach, and it starts to hurt a little... when you leave the room (house, neighborhood) to get out of that awful smell, you will notice what i believe is the "negative smell" of bleach. And if you thought bleach was bad, omg, this "smell" which is just the interpretation in reverse is really really bad. I co
    • Actually, as a long-term sufferer of Anosmia [wikipedia.org], I can say that the interpretation by the brain of a null data input set is approximately equal to null. Dammit.
  • Perhaps the 'smell' wasnt that of space at all. The description of the 'smell' was one of being metallic, and noticing it while around the airlock.

    Could this smell instead be from the materials that are coming in and out of spacecrew cabin. In space there will be more intense radiation and temperature extremes, which will affect the materials in question. Being bombarded by the radiation of outer space, that is normally blocked by the minimum shielding of the crew cabin, might just be enough to 'vaporize'

  • Slightly offtopic, but I've heard that the air filters on ISS only scrub harmful CO2, CO, etc., but plenty of other odors persist, making you almost vomit when you first open the hatch. Of course you get used to it after a bit, but can you imagine being one of those tourists who paid $25+ million to spend a week in a fart tank?
  • He who smelt it, dealt it.
  • but rather space is reacting with the materials the space suits are made of.
    Perhaps the effects of unfiltered solar radiation, cosmic rays, etc cause
    the suit materials to outgas some odor due to a change in the materials they are
    made of.
  • by Mister Whirly (964219) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @12:02PM (#22406790) Homepage
    "Oh my God, it smells like stars!"
  • The author of the article describes the "smell" and relates it to certain kinds of welding.

    Most of the welding I have done that has a "sweet, metallic smell" has been done with a gas welder. Flux welding stinks something awful! But the gases, depending on what gases are used, can have a very pleasant smell. You have to watch it though 'cause as nice as it might smell, it'll still make you woozie and probably causes dain bramage.

    But the smell comes from the oxidation of the metal used in the welder and the s
  • What could be making that smell?

    E03
  • by ms3e (1144199) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @12:09PM (#22406916)
    While it's intellectually fanciful to believe this is the "smell of outer space", what this guy is smelling is the odor of the compressed air used to re-pressurize the airlock, or more exactly, the smell of the inside of the metalic containers and pumps for the storage of the compressed air which the air picked up when contained under pressure before being introduced into the airlock. Take a whiff of compressed air from an air compressor or air tank... hmm, smells like space (apparently).
    • by Headw1nd (829599)
      Why, you might have hit on something there. I'm sure this man, trained as an ASTRONAUT, would have no experience with compressed air, and thus would be completely unfamiliar with its odor.
      • by Mox-Dragon (87528)
        Not only an astronaut, but the ISS science officer. But I'm sure that a bunch of armchair specialists know way more than he does.
  • They'll be cheering when the first hydroponic garden gets installed at the station, dispersing the metallic tang of recycled air with fresh air processed by plants.
  • Vacuum is vacuum, right? Presumably, this particular odor should also appear on items that have been in a vacuum chamber, shouldn't it? For that matter, the fragments of a broken light bulb or vacuum tube should have the scent....
  • There's nothing like that "new spacesuit smell"! Too bad it doesn't last forever. Then you have to get one of the cheezy aerosol new-spacesuit-smell sprays. Or a hang a little starfleet symbol air freshener on your helmet's rear-view mirror. The chicks really dig those.
  • The Apollo astronauts reported that moondust smells like smells like 'spent gunpowder.' [retrothing.com] They couldn't help tracking the fine powder back into their lunar modules (especially after tripping and falling while bouncing around the lunar surface). To add to the mystery, the smell disappears after it being exposed to air.
  • is possible, but it's necessary to collect the gases from a huge volume first. Even if it's vacuum it's not absolute, there are a few molecules out there between the planets and stars. The hard thing is to aggregate them.

    The easiest way is to use a gravitational sink like a planet. But then it will be contaminated.

    Anyhow - I wonder why this article was posted - it seems to attract more than the usual share of oddball flies (comments).

  • ISS Science Officer Don Pettit reports in his journal that outer space gives off a smell best described as "a rather pleasant sweet metallic sensation."

    "I hate to go all technical on you, but... all hands on deck, swirly thing alert!"

    "Where?"

    "It's not on the radar yet - but I can smell it."

    "Nothing here."

    "Nothing on long-range. Sir, is it possible you could have made a mis-smelling?"

    "Listen, butter-pat head, my nostril-hairs are vibrating faster than the springs on a Spaniard's honeymoon bed! I'm telling you, there's something out there!"

    "Don't get your double-helix in a strict! No one's questioning your nasal integrity."

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