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What Does Space Smell Like? | Cosmic Smells

The way space affects the range of human senses is pretty widely known - our eyes bear witness to a sea of endless black, peppered with specks of glittering stars, our ears become heavy with a silence that never ceases, our limbs, made buoyant with weightlessness that is hard to orientate; but what does the human nose identify in space?

With the clouds of Earth flitting below as a distant memory, and the galaxies beyond spinning like great, whirlpools above, the heady aroma of space that permeates the cosmic planes is less coming up roses, and more…oh damn, the toast is ruined!

What can you smell in space?

In the vacuum of space, our noses can’t detect odours; and if we tried we would surely die in the process. However, thanks to the testimonies of numerous astronauts we have a wealth of personal accounts that prove how space does indeed have a distinct smell.

But if space is a vacuum, how do we know what it smells like?

Outside of the craft, space-borne compounds cling to spacesuits and make their way back to the ISS. After returning from a spacewalk, and lifting their pressurised helmets, astronauts have reported being hit with acrid smells of ‘burned’ or ‘fried steak’, ‘welding fumes’, and ‘hot metal’. Apparently, the smell is so distinct that NASA reached out to a perfumery, who have recently recreated the ‘smell of the moon’ which was compared to the smell of ‘spent gunpowder’.

Despite the not-so-pleasant-sounding scents, Don Pettit (chemical engineer and NASA astronaut) spoke fondly of space’s aroma following a space mission in 2003:

"It is hard to describe this smell; it is definitely not the olfactory equivalent to describing the palette sensations of some new food as 'tastes like chicken.' The best description I can come up with is metallic; a rather pleasant sweet metallic sensation. It reminded me of my college summers where I laboured for many hours with an arc welding torch repairing heavy equipment for a small logging outfit. It reminded me of pleasant sweet-smelling welding fumes. That is the smell of space."

Why does some of space smell like a BBQ?

Dying stars, to put it simply. The by-products of all this thermogenesis are specific compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These molecules appear in space dust, comets and meteors, and, according to the director of the Astrophysics and Astrochemistry Lab at NASA’s Ames Research Centre, they ‘float around forever’.

These hydrocarbons appear all over the universe and have been considered the possible basis of the earliest life forms here on Earth. They are found in crude oil, coal, gasoline, and sometimes food. The presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in food largely comes from environmental causes, such as through the process of smoking meats and fish. In larger amounts they are carcinogenic, or at the very least hazardous to human health.

What about other smells in space?

Owing to the diverse compositions of planets and other planetary bodies, space contains all manner of smells - it is by no means an acerbic, burnt-smelling monolith:

  • Saturn’s largest satellite, Titan, smells rather similar to a garage. A chemical, benzene, is highly present in Titan’s atmosphere and falls from the sky in snowflakes, sending cascades of sickly sweet, petrol-y, wafts along with it.

  • The constellation Aquila is a nebula that contains sufficient ethanol to make 400 trillion pints of beer. Unsurprisingly, it absolutely reeks of vodka.

  • A gas cloud known as The Calabash Nebula has been awarded the rather visceral epithet of Rotten Egg Nebula by astrophysicists - as self-explanatory as it sounds. Sulphur central.

  • Composed almost entirely of odourless hydrogen and helium, Uranus does not smell. No, really.

  • At the core of our galaxy lies a vast gas cloud - Sagittarius B2. It contains large amounts of a chemical called ethyl formate. Ethyl formate is a key chemical in both rum and raspberries. This cloud, if we could eat it—and suspended our disbelief as effectively as possible—would taste like raspberries and smell like rum. Glorious.

The extent of the great, smelly, smörgåsbord of space does not end here - for a brief period, space smelled of Aero-Design’s new perfume, ‘FUTUR’. Known for their aviation-industry-inspired art and aircraft design, Aero-Design branched out to create a premium fragrance in 2021.

The team at Sent into Space helped to establish FUTUR as the future of fragrance by sending a bottle of the perfume into space to sail amongst the stars. We even developed a bespoke mechanical system to spray the perfume over the planet, adding its scents to our atmosphere and subtly granting a touch of beauty to the world.

Perfume being sprayed in space with the Earth in the background and perfume bottle in the foreground with robotic spray mechanism

Not only have we sent perfume bottles into space, but we have also sent pies, a Barbie doll, and even a Rick and Morty inspired spaceship. If you have something you would like to send into space to promote your business or worthy cause speak to our team today.


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