Does Space Really Smell Like Fried Steak? Astronauts Debunk The Myths

Does Space Really Smell Like Fried Steak? Astronauts Debunk The Myths

By: Oliver G. Alvar -

The universe is riddled with mysteries, and mysteries tend to send our imagination flying. As a result, there are many misconceptions about space. But don’t worry, astronauts are here to debunk the myths.

Astronauts are rightly admired all over the world as the ultimate explorers, the daring men and women who go beyond the limits of our cozy home and into the unknown for the sake of discovery. The word itself, ‘astronaut,’ harbors the romantic ideals of their profession, meaning literally “sailor of the stars,” or “star-sailor.” That’s quite a picture. 

While astronauts are far from sailing through stars, they have reached boundaries that lie outside of what we had thought possible just barely a few decades ago, and they keep pushing. Their job is dangerous, as the universe, ripe for discovery as it might seem, fosters too many unknowns for us to even begin to deal with. Thankfully, astronauts know what they’re doing, which is why we should listen to them when they tell us what’s going on in the vastness of empty space they frequent so much. 

There are many strange myths about outer space that grow out of ignorance and speculation. But, sure enough, astronauts are here to correct our misconceptions. 

The sun is a giant ball of fire

It’s very common to talk about the sun as a massive burning fire in the sky. Like fire, it produces heat, and it certainly looks as though it were a burning thing, but the typical notion of fire, meaning that burning flame we see when combustion occurs, doesn’t really apply to the sun. You see, when fire springs up here on Earth, you need oxygen to release the stored energy in whatever fuel there is, from gas to wood. That’s why you can extinguish fire by simply eliminating the oxygen around it; like putting out a candle by covering the flame. 

astronauts debunk myths about outer space

But earthly, oxygen-fed combustion doesn’t take place in space at all. The Sun, as all stars, generate their energy through a process called “fusion,” rather than combustion. Fusion occurs when gravity is so strong that it smashes atoms together, turning lighter elements into heavier ones. Unlike combustion, fusion requires no oxygen, so covering the sun up wouldn’t “put it out.” 

The sun is yellow

Without any atmospheric distortions or light-scattering, the sun would look simply white to us. Due to a combination of factors, sometimes the sun appears yellow, and other times it appears orange or even red. That’s not because the sun itself is yellow during noon and turns orange during sunset, but because of how our atmosphere filters and scatters the sun’s light. 

astronauts debunk myths about outer space

Space has no gravity

Gravity is all over the place whenever you have two objects with mass around. Gravity is just how two masses attract each other. Our experience of gravity is usually the Earth acting on our bodies, so that our planet pulls us strongly towards its center. But even way above Earth, gravity is still present. The moon, for example, pulls our planet ever so slightly as to alter the tides. And Earth also pulls the moon, so that it remains in orbit around it. Likewise, the Sun pulls the Earth towards itself, which is why we spin around it. 

The Sun itself is being affected by other massive bodies light-years away: other stars and black holes are constantly acting on every other around it, which is why we get galaxies in the first place. Without gravity, i.e. without bodies attracting each other, stars and planets would just wander around without any sort of relationship with one another: neither solar systems nor galaxies would be formed.

astronauts debunk myths about outer space

Galaxies, in fact, are nothing but a bunch of stars and planets and moons bunched together by gravity. The International Space Station (ISS) is constantly being pulled towards Earth as well. So astronauts do experience gravity, only much less so than if they were standing on Earth’s surface. 

Think of what astronauts in the ISS go through as if they were free falling in an elevator. That’s basically it. It’s not that there’s no gravity at all, but that astronauts fall just as fast as the ISS, much like when you free-fall in the elevator you only “float” in the sense that you’re falling at the same speed as your surroundings. So, yeah, there’s gravity in space—and loads of it. 

astronauts debunk myths about outer space

Asteroid belts are incredibly dangerous for starships

You’re probably used to seeing sci-fi flicks or video games that depict asteroid fields as incredibly dangerous rock-filled rings through which only the most skilled pilots can navigate. But this is a gross misrepresentation of what asteroid belts are actually like. 

In reality, asteroid fields are more empty space than actual asteroids, where each massive rock is so far apart from another (hundred of thousands of miles, on average) that even an unmanned, unthinking ship could pass through it without much problem—and plenty such vessels have. Many probes have been sent from Earth to study the outer reaches of our solar system, and they have all passed the asteroid belt without so much as a scratch. It’s actually incredibly unlikely that anyone going through an asteroid field would ever even see an asteroid, let alone hit one. 

astronauts debunk myths about outer space

You can explode if you go out to space without a suit

Going out to space without a suit would be terrible. You’d certainly suffer a rather gruesome, painful death, as your blood would likely boil and, due to extreme temperatures, burn and freeze at the same time. The nitrogen in your body would indeed expand, so you’d certainly bloat. But at no point would you actually outright explode—your skin is too tough compared with the relatively “mild” bloating you’d experience. So, at least you don’t have to worry about that particular fate. 

There’s a dark side of the moon

Many people seem to think that there’s a side of the moon that is in perpetual darkness. But that’s simply false. There is in fact a face of the moon which we never see from Earth, since the moon rotates on its own axis at the same rate as it orbits our planet, we only ever see the same side. But the sun’s light hits both faces just as often, as the moon has night-day cycles like Earth.

astronauts debunk myths about outer space

If you go really fast in space, you won’t age

People have often taken Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to mean you can basically be suspended in time if you traveled at the speed of light, but that’s not how it works. What relativity implies, rather, is that the rates of aging would change relative to the speed of two points of reference. 

For instance, if you were traveling at light speed towards another galaxy right now, you would still age normally, and two years from your point of view would still feel like two years. But people on Earth would age faster relative to your speed. So, even if it all feels normal to you, you’d still outlive the Earth’s populations by thousands of years. You would still get old, though; only slower. 

astronauts debunk myths about outer space

You need to work out to survive in space

As astronaut Chris Hadfield point outs, you can be the laziest person in space and survive just fine. You don’t need to lift a finger in order to move anything around, since every object is virtually weightless when free-falling. Astronauts do exercise, however, in order not to fall apart when returning to Earth.

Space smells like fried steak

This is true, but we’re still not sure why. Astronauts can’t really directly smell space, though: they’d die if they breathed without a helmet on. But they can smell their own suits when returning from a space-walk, for instance, and they have reported rather particular odors. Most say their suits end up smelling like gunpowder or burned steak. “To me it’s sort of like… brimstone. Like a witch has just been there,” Chris Hadfield has said. We don’t know if that’s actually space, or space’s effect on human-made ships and stations. 

astronauts debunk myths about outer space

There’s no sound in space

This one’s only partially true, but with some caveats. Stuff in space is as sound-prone as anything on Earth. Things “produce” sound, or produce waves which, if allowed, would travel all the way to our eardrums and make them vibrate. But, unlike Earth, there’s nothing in space that allows those waves to travel at all. Think of the sun: it’s a giant massive explosion constantly producing violent eruptions. That would be deafening. But nothing between the sun and Earth carries the sound waves produced by those explosions, so we hear nothing of it. Thankfully. 

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