What Does Space Smell Like?

byron eggenschwiler
byron eggenschwiler / byron eggenschwiler

This story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

Astronauts fresh off spacewalks often report that a certain faint, acrid smell tends to cling to their equipment. NASA astronaut Don Pettit described it as “a rather pleasant sweet metallic sensation” akin to “welding fumes,” while others have said it reminds them of charred meat. They were probably smelling polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are compounds produced when stars and planets form. According to Jeff Oishi, a research scientist at the Museum of Natural History in New York, PAHs are present on Earth too—they’re produced when you BBQ!

But if you travel 26,000 light years to a dust cloud at the center of the Milky Way called Sagittarius B2, you might catch a whiff of raspberries and maybe rum. This cloud is stuffed with ethyl formate, an ester that gives both treats their flavor. “Space is pretty boozy,” Oishi says. “There’s no liquid alcohol, but a lot of different kinds of alcohols have been observed.” The constellation Aquila contains enough space booze that, if liquefied, it could fill 400 trillion trillion pints. Interstellar pub crawl, anyone?