How does the room smell?

“How does the room smell?”, Lana Yolovich asks us on our Facebook page. This is our Question of the Week. Thank you all for your participation.

“We’m talking about deep-fried steak, hot metal, welding smoke and barbecue”

“I love this question, but still it’s one of the hardest. Because yes, space smells … but how does it smell?”wonders Tim Peake, British astronaut who spent six months in the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015-2016, in his book Is there wi-fi in the room? (released in 2019). The astronaut says that every time he opened the ISS airlock, he smelled a strong and special odor. “This mysterious scent sets off a lively and playful debate between astronauts. We talk about fried steak, hot metal, welding fumes and barbecue (…) I found this smell quite pleasant, it was a bit reminiscent of a British summer barbecue, with the sausages roasted on a charcoal grill … ”

Could this odor be due to the suit itself, some components of which “degas” after being exposed to vacuum and extreme temperatures? Tim Peake does not believe and has a different theory. “I smelled exactly the same smell two or three times in the empty Japanese airlock after pressure regulation. In my opinion, the smell of space is like static electricity. For example, they have static discharges that you sometimes trigger when you take a shirt. or sweater of the same kind of burnt metal smell. “ According to him, the odor that accompanies static electricity is most likely the odor of ozone (O3). The latter can occur naturally when high-energy UV rays (from the Sun, lightning or static electricity) strike oxygen molecules (O2) and separate them into two isolated oxygen atoms. A released oxygen atom is then combined with another oxygen molecule (O2) to form O3. Ozone is present in the lower part of the stratosphere, about 20 or 30 km above the Earth, but not around the ISS (altitude of about 350 km), so why would astronauts feel it during space travel? Because the small atmosphere present at this altitude consists mainly of atomic oxygen. “It is possible that atomic oxygen will be introduced into the airlock when it is open to space, and that it will react with the space station’s oxygen molecules by recharging and forming ozone.”thinks Tim Peake.

The scent of dying stars?

Another theory, quite poetic, attributes the smell of space to that left by dying stars. There is actually a gigantic amount of combustion going on in the universe. Stars composed mainly of hydrogen and helium gas are driven by a nuclear fusion reaction that can last for billions of years. At the end of its life, when its combustible hydrogen is depleted, the star collapses on itself in a violent supernova explosion, where heavier elements such as oxygen, carbon, gold and uranium. This dazzling combustion releases odorous compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). According to some NASA scientists, these PAHs float forever and are found throughout the universe, including the ISS and … on Earth. “Then we would smell the remains of some of the earliest stars when we put our noses in the airlock? Who knows?”asks Tim Peake.

A perfume to “feel the space”

Even those who do not have the opportunity to go out into the room can also smell it thanks to … a perfume. The idea was born in 2008 when NASA asked a chemist, Steve Pearce of the company Omega Ingredients, to reproduce this particular odor that astronauts feel when they open the ISS ‘airlock. This project was first planned to introduce this odor to astronauts during their training on Earth. But from 2020, it has also been marketed under the name “Eau de Space” (it sells for under 50 euros). For fans of this kind of products, know that NASA and Omedia Ingredients have also developed a perfume with “the scent of the moon” called “Eau de Luna”. For the same price as the smell of space.

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