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The Smell of Space 70

According to NASA scientists, space smells a lot like my uncle's workshop. One can detect hints of fried steak, hot metal, and the welding of a motorbike. They have hired Steven Pearce, a chemist and managing director of fragrance manufacturing company Omega Ingredients, to recreate the smell in a laboratory. NASA will use his research to help train potential astronauts. Steven said, "I did some work for an art exhibition in July, which was based entirely on smell, and one of the things I created was the smell of the inside of the Mir space station. NASA heard about it and contacted me to see if I could help them recreate the smell of space to help their astronauts."


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The Smell of Space

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  • I don't get it. If there is no air, how does space have a smell?
    • As I have understood it, they're going to recreate what astronauts smell while in space, in other words, the inside of the shuttle and space suits, not space itself.
      • ...the inside of the shuttle and space suits...

        I really don't want to know what the inside of the space suit smells like.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by rhartness ( 993048 )
      Wow, guys. You didn't even need to read the article-- the summary states that this is the smell of the MIR space station.
      • by Bob-taro ( 996889 ) on Thursday October 16, 2008 @02:24PM (#25403199)

        Wow, guys. You didn't even need to read the article-

        Actually, if you DO read the article (the one linked from the older slashdot post), you'll see that the airlock operator noticed the smell on the spacesuits of his fellow astronauts after each spacewalk.

      • Must have been all that bad BO

      • Training Plan:

        Day One: This is Roger's aroma. Note the hint of slight mildew. Roger has foot fungus.
        Day Two: Ahhh, now this is distinct. You will note the spicey waft. Srini is a big fan of a good curry.
        Day Three: This should be a breeze now, Natalie is a total sports fanatic. Actually, you could probably smell her from the OUTSIDE of the ship. Day Four: .....
    • by retchdog ( 1319261 ) on Thursday October 16, 2008 @02:04PM (#25402883) Journal

      It has a smell likely because we perceive sensations by association, in a relative manner. It's a cute (though somewhat frivolous) trick to simulate this association by engineering.

      If you've ever been in an acoustically-isolated chamber, the silence is so overwhelming that it almost has its own sound. We're just not used to such near-perfect silence, so we try to interpret the novelty as a sound.

      Similarly, if you put near-pure (95%) alcohol on your tongue, it will feel greasy because it is so dry that it dehydrates your tongue. The absence of water feels greasy.

    • It is from all the space dust that gets into the ships/station(s) by the air locks as well as carried in from suits/objects that are worn or used in space. That is how you smell space.
      • I think you're confused between the smell of the ISS (workshop) with the smell of lunar dust (gunpower).
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        Correct. The story was posted before on the main page. http://science.slashdot.org/science/08/02/13/1418216.shtml [slashdot.org]
      • by pz ( 113803 )

        It is from all the space dust that gets into the ships/station(s) by the air locks as well as carried in from suits/objects that are worn or used in space. That is how you smell space.

        Also don't forget that any object that's brought outside of a spacecraft (like a spacesuit) is exposed to lots of ionizing radiation. When the object is brought back inside and the volatiles created on its surface allowed to mix with the internal atmosphere to create an odor, I can imagine there might be a characteristic smell.

    • by Fox_1 ( 128616 ) on Thursday October 16, 2008 @02:06PM (#25402933)
      You can smell underwater , well not you per se- there's a creature - a shrew or vole I think, or maybe muskrat. Anyways there is a Rat like creature that when underwater blows a small bubble of air out it's nose and then sucks it back (kinda the inverse of the spit/snot drop we've all done as kids). This allows it to smell the water and the scent of things in the water. It can actually track underwater by smell.

      I think this story is referring to the locker room smell of human habitats in space, not actually the smell of space. But there are chemicals in space - it's not actually nothing nothing nothing and then planets and sun. In theory one could put atmosphere into a sample of 'vacuum' and try to sniff anything that volatilizes. But concentrations of matter are so low in space that it still seems kinda implausible.

      So my point is, I don't know how to smell space, but I didn't know how smell underwater either until I watched the discovery channel.
    • That is not space that you are smelling . . . it is what your fellow astronauts had to eat yesterday . . . digested.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by sonnejw0 ( 1114901 )
      Actually, astronauts have reported after spacewalks that their space suits collect a semi-metallic, sweet smell to them after they return to the shuttle/vehicle. Of course, depending upon the nature of the spacewalk, this could have been a collection of fine particles from welding and repairing a satellite, or exhaust that collected to the exterior of the shuttle during launch. Here's a link to NASA.gov with an astronaut's recounting of smelling 'space residue' http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/station/crew/exp [nasa.gov]
    • by olclops ( 591840 )

      I've read about this before, and I forget the details, but yeah, it's not actually space proper. It's really the smell of the space station. Something about the ionization of the metal walls when exposed to radiation, and there's no atmosphere to dissipate the charge into. Or something.

  • by FauxPasIII ( 75900 ) on Thursday October 16, 2008 @01:59PM (#25402773)

    But does it has a flavor?

  • by Van Cutter Romney ( 973766 ) <sriram DOT venka ... geemail DOT com> on Thursday October 16, 2008 @02:00PM (#25402813)

    NASA will use his research to help train potential astronauts.

    It's okay Richard, just try opening the helmet for few seconds.

  • Such news are made for improving PR but make no real sense for practical space activities. While a space station air certainly smells something, space gas is so dilute that no smelling may be perceived.

    It is a bit like the sound or temperature of space, sometimes described for similar purposes. These cannot be perceived directly by normal people.

    • Re:Just PR (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 16, 2008 @02:29PM (#25403255)

      Actually, you're pretty ignorant. I fly for a living; and smells have saved my life. Knowing what "normal" smells like lets you recognize and analyze abnormal smells. Is that smell burning hydraulic fluid or misting hydraulic fluid? The difference is important, when you decide what to do about a hydraulic leak. (e.g. Do you turn off bleed air and pressurization and electrics because it's a fire, or do you isolate hydraulic systems so that you only loose one when the system fails completely). In other words, it's not a PR stunt, it's worthwhile training.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by iteyoidar ( 972700 )
        Too bad I just ran out of mod points. This would be my best guess as to why they're trying to recreate space smells. Particularly onboard the ISS, it's a really big deal if something inside the station ends up leaking or burning. And if you're operating something critical like an airlock and you start smelling something funny, that's definitely something to worry about. Here's an article from a couple years ago where the crew smelled something strange and ended up shutting down the entire ventilation sy
        • by IMightB ( 533307 )

          Wouldn't the pressure differential guarantee that the *smell* stays outside? I mean it's not like space is going to "leak in" to the ISS, rather the ISS smell is going to go into space.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)


        Could you imagine if humans lost the ability to smell smoke? A hell of a lot more of us(no pun intended) would burn to death in fires were it not for our ability to do so.

        NASA simply realizes the importance of smell in many aspects, from diagnosis of a problem to the signaling of humans that a problem exists in the first place.

        Astronaut A reenters the shuttle. Astronaut B smells something OTHER then the smell of space on the suit of astronaut A as he reenters. At this point it can be assumed it is tim

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        Well, thanks to you, at least I'm not ignorant anymore. Actually, this makes a lot of sense to me, now. I take a train to work every day. Sometimes, when the engineer has to brake real hard, the breaks give off that familiar "burning your brakes" smell. One time I mentioned it to the conductor, when he was checking my ticket. He quipped:

        Oh, that's nothing . . . a total brake failure smells entirely different. And you would notice it immediately . . . because I would not be checking tickets!"

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Framboise ( 521772 )

        Perhaps you didn't understand the same but the article doesn't say that they try to recreate the smelll within a spacecraft, but the smell of *space*.
        Interplanetary or interstellar space is not empty but contains gas and dust particles. This medium is extraordinary dilute (typically 1-10^5 atoms/cm^3 and 99% of this is made of odorless hydrogen and helium). Despite this low concentration, accumulated over light-years this medium adds up to and makes structures like nebulae and dark clouds seen on teles

      • Indeed. Around the lab, you smell things too. Does the air smell acrid? The house air is out and the floating tables have gone down. Does the air smell faintly rotten? There's vegetation in the laser cooling systems. Does the air smell like ozone? There's probably a short in the high voltage supply for the laser diodes. Burning cardboard? Some idiot has misaligned their laser and is burning a hole in their beam blocks. In complete agreement, people should never underestimate the power of smell, for ussing p
    • >These cannot be perceived directly by normal people.

      So, kind of like tang [wikipedia.org]. I see a theme here.

  • In space no one can hear you fart.

    Wtf, so they're able to smell it now?!
  • Hmmmmm (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Cap'nPedro ( 987782 )

    That's odd.... the things described as being space seem to smell exactly like Ozone.

    How odd.

  • I give it an A minus....minus! - prof. wernstrom
  • Ob. Quote (Score:5, Funny)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland@NOSpAm.yahoo.com> on Thursday October 16, 2008 @02:25PM (#25403205) Homepage Journal

    Professor Hubert Farnsworth: Exactly. And now, Saturn.
    Fry: Pine needles. Oh, man, this is great... hey, as long as you don't make me smell Uranus.
    Leela: I don't get it.
    Professor Hubert Farnsworth: I'm sorry, Fry, but astronomers renamed Uranus in 2620 to end that stupid joke once and for all.
    Fry: Oh. What's it called now?
    Professor Hubert Farnsworth: Urrectum. Here, let me locate it for you.
    Fry: No, no, I, I think I'll just smell around a bit over here.

  • So they want to recreate the smell of the international space station, a place where people work 12 hour days for 6 months on end with no showering facilities. Three guesses as to what that smells like, but you'll only need one.
  • wow, 20 comments, and not one of them a reference to Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth's Smelloscope? I'm impressed with everyone restraining their geekdom.
  • by pete-classic ( 75983 ) <hutnick@gmail.com> on Thursday October 16, 2008 @02:33PM (#25403335) Homepage Journal

    Back in February [hutnick.com]


  • Well, if in space no one can hear you scream when the alien attacks, at least they can tell that you've shit your pants.
  • already posted a loong time ago

  • From what I've read, Mir is NOT something I want to smell. Several sweaty guys, cabbage, beans and no good way to deodorize the place. Yuck!
  • I am reminded of smells I used to experience when doing juvenile experiments with high voltage...could it be the smell of ozone?

  • And whoever smelt it, is probably undergoing explosive decompression.

  • Just a theory but the space suit probably smells that way because is it was bombard by cosmic rays, as well as all other particles interacting with the suit while EVA.

Karl's version of Parkinson's Law: Work expands to exceed the time alloted it.