Saturday, February 12, 2011

The smell of outer space

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. ...

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.”
--Lizzie Schiffman, Popular Science, on eau de space

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