Imagine that you could go into outer space, take your helmet off, and inhale—without dying a grisly death, that is. Would the surrounding cosmos have a smell?
We think of space as a void, pitch-dark, dead silent, and devoid of air. A place like that couldn’t possibly have a smell, right? As it turns out, space actually does have a distinct odor. While we can’t smell anything in outer space because, as we mentioned, anyone attempting to do so would almost instantly die, what we can smell are the things that have come back from space.
Space suits, for instance, smell differently after they’ve returned from space than they did before blast-off. Astronauts returning from space claim that their suits smell, in a word, burnt. The lingering scent of space is “acrid” and “metallic,” reminding the astronauts of charred meat or welding fumes.
What causes this rather unpleasant odor? Scientists believe that it could come from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. That’s a mouthful (or maybe nose-ful), but these things are basically high-powered particles that are released into space during the nuclear reactions that power stars and supernovae. If you want to see outer space from our home planet, these are the best places to see the Northern Lights.
However, this stench is one of many odors that space could have. The universe is massive, after all, filled with many different elements and compounds. Scientists do have a pretty good idea of what a lot of “space stuff” is made of, giving them better ideas about what it might smell like. Most memorably, the dust cloud at the center of the Milky Way contains large amounts of ethyl formate. This is the compound that, on Earth, gives raspberries their flavor. Yes, raspberries. What’s more, ethyl formate itself is created from a reaction between acid and a type of alcohol, which gives it a smell similar to that of rum. (Ironically, alcohol is one of the foods that are banned from space.) The smell of space—or at least that part of space!—doesn’t seem so bad anymore.
Curious about what else lies in the cosmos, besides funny smells? Here’s what being in space is really like, according to NASA.