'What space smells like', by Tim Peake

Does space have a smell? According to Tim Peake it does. In fact, the UK astronaut has likened it to “a British summer barbeque, burning sausages on a charcoal grill”.

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"I think I found the perfect spot for a selfie." Tim Peake completed his first spacewalk on Friday 15 January after nearly five hours in space, but what does space smell like?
Credit: ESA/NASA

 

Peake describes the aroma of space in his book Ask an Astronaut, which was release in October 2017.

The book is Tim Peake’s guide to life in space, based on thousands of questions he received on social media using the hashtag #askanastronaut early in 2017.

Some of the best questions and Peake’s responses are included, such as his answer to “does space smell?”, which was asked by eight-year-old Sally from Portsmouth.

Read Tim’s response in full below...

 


Tim Peake is donating his royalties for Ask An Astronaut to his chosen charity, The Prince's Trust.
Credit: ESA/NASA

 

This is a favourite question of mine and yet one of the hardest to answer. That’s because yes, space does smell…but exactly what it smells of is much harder to put your nose on. I smelt space on a number of occasions.

The first time was after just a few days on the Space Station, when I was helping astronauts Tim Kopra and Scott Kelly back in after their spacewalk.

Subsequently, there was a strong and distinctive smell whenever we opened the airlock after it had been exposed to the vacuum of space.

The mystery scent is the topic of much light-hearted debate among astronauts. It has been described as seared steak, hot metal, welding fumes and barbeque to name a few.

There are some suggestions that the smell may originate from the spacesuit itself, with certain components ‘off-gassing’ having been exposed to vacuum and thermal extremes.

However, in my opinion, the smell of space is like static electricity. For example, when you take off a shirt or jumper and sometimes get a large static discharge - it has that kind of burnt metallic smell.

Actually, what you're most likely smelling with static electricity is ozone. Ozone can occur naturally when high-energy ultraviolet rays (such as from the Sun, lightning or static electricity) strike oxygen molecules, splitting the molecule into two single oxygen atoms.

A freed oxygen atom then combines with another oxygen molecule to form O3 – ozone. Although ozone is present in the lower part of the stratosphere, it is not present at 400km above Earth…so why would we smell it in space?

Well, atomic oxygen is present in space. In fact, what little atmosphere there is outside the ISS consists of about 90 per cent atomic oxygen. It’s possible that atomic oxygen is being introduced to the airlock when exposed to space, and then on re-pressurisation it’s reacting with oxygen molecules from the space station atmosphere, thereby creating ozone.

Perhaps the most wistful theory is that the smell of space is the left-over aroma of dying stars.

There’s an awful lot of combustion going on in the Universe. Stars mostly comprise hydrogen and helium gas, powered by a nuclear fusion reaction that can last for billions of years.

At the end of its life, as the hydrogen fuel is used up, a star will collapse on itself and undergo a violent supernova explosion, during which heavier elements such as oxygen, carbon, gold and uranium will be produced.

All this rampant combustion produces smelly compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These molecules are thought to pervade the Universe and float around forever. So are we smelling the left-overs from some of the earliest stars when we stick our nose into the airlock? Who knows?

Either way, I found it a rather pleasant smell and it reminded me a little of a British summer barbeque, burning sausages on a charcoal grill.    


 

Ask an Astronaut is published by Century on 19 October 2017

 
 
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