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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Smell of Space

If you really want to drive a green-geek insane try describing the smell of a futuristic spaceport. Those who believe in the dream of a the green future utopia will draw knives and scream in fear if you so much as mention rotted vegetables, debris, or (Gaia-forfend) the smell of diesel.

"It isn't going to happen!" the eco-concious will cry. "The future will be clean and bright! The air will smell of roses and lilacs!"

Yeah, well, not so much.

The ever popular diesel reference comes from the smell of war-time motor pools and flight decks. I've used it in novels, and I used it for the Setting Thesaurus entry on spaceports because it fits what I imagine.

Now I have the science to back up this idea.

First, get rid of that quaint notion that space is empty vacuum. It isn't empty. It's not as densely packed with molecules as the chair you're sitting in, but there isn't a pure vacuum. Your nose is equipped to detect all sorts of strange and wonderful (or not so wonderful) odors.

Among the top scents in space: burnt meat, diesiel fumes, barbacue and hot metal.

Astronauts report that the moon smells like spent gunpowder, based on what their suits smelled like after moon walks.

All of that comes down to carbons and the combination of gases present in our solar system. In other solar systems, things get weirder. At least theoretically. There could even be dark pockets of space that smell like cupcakes. And is there one that smells like dark chocolate? Who knows? But it's a great idea for a book!

If you want to read more there are full articles on the study in Popular Science and NASA Science has an article about moondust with transcripts from some of the Apollo missions and a breakdown of the chemical formulas.

- Liana

Image courtesy or and copyright to NASA archives, used under Fair Use laws.


  1. Very interesting post. I'd never really given thought to what I would smell in space. Maybe I have; for some odd reason I probably imagined it to have a fresh smell, or no smell (like the 'taste' of good water).

  2. That...is an awesome thought. I never thought about the smell of space because I'm too preoccupied with the not breathing part of it.

    Should I turn towards a scientifically accurate sci-fi I shall definitely remember this detail

  3. John - I always thought ports would have a smell, but I never considered outer space. It was a fun article to read, though. I have several characters who are found of walking in vacuum and I need this detail for them.

    Dldzioba - It would be a fun detail to work in even if the rest of the work isn't 100% accurate. :o)