What Does Space Smell Like?


The final frontier smells a lot like a NASCAR race — a bouquet of hot metal, diesel fumes and barbecue. The by-products of dying stars are smelly compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and they seem to be all over the universe — floating around forever. Not surprisingly, these hydrocarbons can be found in coal, oil and even food. Though a pure, unadulterated whiff of outer space is impossible for humans, when astronauts are outside the ISS, space-borne compounds adhere to their suits and hitch a ride back into the station. Astronauts have reported smelling "burned" or "fried" steak after a space walk, and they aren't just dreaming of a home-cooked meal. The smell of space is so distinct that NASA reached out to Steven Pearce of the fragrance maker Omega Ingredients to re-create the odor for its training simulations. Recently, they did the smell of the moon, which astronauts have compared to the smell of gunpowder. Just like a car, if you starve our solar system of oxygen you start to see black soot and get a foul smell. Oxygen-rich stars, however, have the aroma of a charcoal grill. Once you leave our galaxy, smells can get really interesting. In dark pockets of the universe, tiny dust particles host a smorgasbord of odors, from wafts of sweet sugar to the rotten-egg stench of sulfur. Now you know what you might find if you were able to get a good “astro whiff.”