The smell of space

The recent anniversary of Apollo 11 reminded me of this article about how the astronauts said moondust smelled like spent gunpowder. There’s nothing in the moon regolith remotely similar to gunpowder in composition, but nevertheless, several of the astronauts agreed that was the closest in odor.

ISS astronaut Don Pettit, who has never been to the moon but has an interest in space smells, offers one possibility:

“Picture yourself in a desert on Earth,” he says. “What do you smell? Nothing, until it rains. The air is suddenly filled with sweet, peaty odors.” Water evaporating from the ground carries molecules to your nose that have been trapped in dry soil for months.

Maybe something similar happens on the moon.

“The moon is like a 4-billion-year-old desert,” he says. “It’s incredibly dry. When moondust comes in contact with moist air in a lunar module, you get the ‘desert rain’ effect–and some lovely odors.” (For the record, he counts gunpowder as a lovely odor.)

Don Pettit also wrote about the smell of the airlock after a spacewalk – metallic, like welding fumes. Sometimes there was the smell of ozone, which would be from the atomic oxygen in low Earth orbit reacting with the spacesuit materials.

One more thing a robotic explorer would not be able to tell us.

4 thoughts on “The smell of space”

  1. The odor of Ozone in the air lock is no surprise to me. Since space is filled with plasma (Read “The Electric Sky”) that’s an odor I would expect once the Astronauts re-enter atmosphere with suits that have been exposed to the plasma and bring it in with them.

  2. What is a smell? As I look at it, it is a microscopic particle, suspended in *air*. This particle triggers a particular olfactory nerve in your nose. Therefore, since there is no air, there is no smell. Question, if you could sniff a moon rock on the Earth, would it smell the same? No, you have compromised the environment of the moon rock. About Plasma on Earth and Plasma in Space, do they “smell the same”? My answer would be the same, no. Any air or man-made atmosphere would also compromise “The True Smell of Space”.

    Plasma being the fourth state of matter has a very real place in our thinking.

  3. Gunpowder IS a lovely odor . . . cordite is even better.

    During the rainy seasons in iraq and afghanistan, many earthy and hearty scents arose from the earth. Especially noteworthy in the more barren areas, out in the open or up in the mountains. While this is a strange descriptive, there was an honesty about it.

    It was the earth as it was, it cared not for whatever strife took place upon it.

    It simply existed.

    There was a rough hewn beauty to those pieces of earth, ruined by the human beings that live there. But there is beauty, regardless that these are places I would never intentionally visit or ever call home. Have to acknowledge the beauty of nature and lament how human beings can ruin its poetry with so little effort.

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