Does Space Have a Smell?

There are so many unanswered questions about space, it truly is one of the greatest mysteries in the universe.

From wondering how many planets there may be out there, to wondering whether there is any other life, from questioning the existence of travel through a wormhole, and even wondering how space smells… 

Okay, so maybe that last one isn’t quite the question on everyone’s minds, at least not a major question of importance. Nevertheless, it is still one of the general wonders shared by many space fanatics.

As such, this article is going to be exploring the smells of space, answering all of your burning questions about what space smells like and whether it is even possible to smell in space.

What does space smell like?

When you imagine space, it is hard to think of it as having a distinct smell. After all, when a human goes to space, they are in a suit and helmet that stops them from being able to smell anything but their bodies.

However, as it turns out, space does have quite a distinct smell. The reason we know this is because of the lingering scent left on astronauts and their equipment upon returning to our planet earth.

Many people who have been into space (or, indeed, been around people and equipment that have come back from space) all agree that there is often a distinct smell that lingers. That smell is often described as ‘burnt’.

No, we don’t mean to say that aliens are up there burning toast. The burnt smell is more like an acrid, metallic burning smell. It has also been likened to charred meat (think a steak that is being overcooked on a very hot grill or barbecue), and even welding fumes!

Sticking with the theme of welding fumes, some astronauts have described that smell as a very pleasant, almost sweet welding smell, as though you are welding on a hot summer day. 

Other smells that have been identified include burnt almond cookies, gunpowder, and burnt brake pads! What a mixture, am I right?

Now, all of these different smells don’t just come out of nowhere. Sure, it could be argued that the smells are in the nose of the beholder (or however that quotation goes…), but there has to be some scientific explanation for it, surely?

Well, you’re in luck! There are several theories about what causes the smells of space.

Truth is, space could have many different odors (perhaps accounting for the big difference in smells identified). Scientists think that the particles that cause the smells listed above could be caused by a substance called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon.

These particles are released into space following the nuclear reactions that power stars! Notice the word ‘aromatic’. This is a reference to smells, hence the theory that these little particles are the smell-makers in space.

Other smells within space that may not have been identified by humans (well, at least not yet) include the smell of the dust cloud within the Milky Way! Now, it can be difficult to imagine a dust cloud having a smell.

However, because of all the chemical reactions that occur, there is a substance within this Milky Way dust cloud that is known as ethyl formate.

Ethyl formate, believe it or not, is the very same compound that is found in raspberries that gives them that distinct flavor! Does this mean that there is an area in space that smells like raspberries? Who knows, but it may be possible!

As if that wasn’t enough, ethyl formate is the result of a reaction between acid and alcohol, and it is that exact reaction that gives rum its distinct taste. So, with raspberries and rum, we have the makings of a space cocktail!

So, as you can see, space may smell like a lot of different things. For the most part, it is impossible to know exactly how it smells, but what we do know is that many astronauts agree with a distinct burnt or metallic smell on their suits and equipment upon returning from space.

Can you smell in space?

No, it is unlikely that you will be able to smell anything in space except for the smell of your suit, helmet, and your own body. Removing any part of your suit or helmet to try and smell space will surely result in death.

Space is practically a vacuum, and so there are not many (if any) molecules that are floating around ready to be smelled.

Of course, this is different from the distinct smell that is left on the body, suits, and equipment upon return to earth from space. These things do have a smell, but you would not be able to smell them whilst you are still in space.

Of course, you can smell things from within your suit, such as the smell of the suit itself (apparently this is often quite a plastic smell). You may also be able to smell odors from your own body - so no farting!

Inside your spacecraft, you may be able to smell as you would on earth. However, any scented products are prohibited on spacecraft and space stations, due to how flammable they are. So, with this in mind, if you are stationed in space it may be a long time before you get to smell your favorite shower gel or lotion again!

Astronauts who have been on space stations before have said that the smell inside the space station is pleasant.

It would make sense for it to be a little stinky, especially if there were a few different people on there without scented soap and deodorant (and not to mention the lack of plumbing as we know it).

However, we have been assured that the waste systems aboard crafts and stations can recycle over 90% of waste water into clean water - so no stinky toilet smells there!


So, there you have it!

Turns out space does have a smell, and whilst you will not be able to smell it when you are in space, you can certainly smell it on your equipment when you come back to earth. 

Gordon Watts