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Four Great Space Scents

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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You don’t need your nose to know what something smells like. Perfumers and astronomers can detect and recreate scents based on the chemical signatures of the molecules in the air, even if that air is very very far away.

1. The Space Rose

In 1998 the space shuttle Discovery brought a rose into orbit. With a gas chromatograph, astronaut John Glenn captured the unique aroma of a rose living in zero gravity, ever so slightly different from an earthbound rose. Perfumers back on Earth used the chromatography trace to identify the molecules in the smell and create an ultra rosey scent for the brand Shiseido.

2. Saturn’s Moon

Researchers at NASA recently announced that they had experimentally recreated the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan in the lab. Using spectrometer data from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, they combined a mixture of hydrocarbons and nitriles that are representative of what might be found on Titan. The mixture includes aromatic compounds that smell like gasoline.

3. Scratch-and-sniff Moon

When Apollo astronauts returned from the moon, they described the smell that got onto their spacesuits as smelling like gunpowder. Artists Hagen Betzwieser and Sue Corke working with flavorist Steven Pearce created a scratch and sniff version of the smell of the moon in 2010.

4. The Center of the Galaxy

Image by Tony Hallas, NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day

A few years ago, astronomers reported that the enormous dust cloud at the center of the Milky Way smells like raspberries. Electromagnetic radiation coming from the gas cloud is absorbed by the chemicals floating around in space, and astronomers can identify those chemicals by how they change the electromagnetic signals that reach Earth. One of the molecules they identified, ethyl formate, smells like raspberries and rum.

Christina Agapakis About the Author: Christina Agapakis is a biological designer who blogs about biology, engineering, engineering biology, and biologically inspired engineering. Follow on Twitter @thisischristina.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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