What would happen to an airplane in space? Or to be more specific, would anything interesting happen to the plane itself, and would the passengers and crew be able to survive for longer than a few seconds?

Please note that I am perfectly aware that a plane cannot simply fly into space. I simply want to know what effects being in space-like conditions would have on the hull, systems, and people on board.

I wouldn't expect there to be a major difference between a plane in orbit around a planet, and one away from any celestial bodies, but I am interested in both scenarios.

While I have no particular airplane in mind, a commercial airliner would probably be the best example.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ What airplane? Boeing 747 passengers would have a better outcome than Cessna passengers. $\endgroup$ Mar 8 '18 at 22:09
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak I am interested in any differences between different planes in such a scenario. $\endgroup$ Mar 8 '18 at 22:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Relevant: aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/948/… $\endgroup$ Mar 8 '18 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ What research did you do before asking? $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Mar 8 '18 at 22:18
  • $\begingroup$ 'The X-15 reached space just by going fast and then steering up.' - Randall Munroe, in 'Orbital Speed' $\endgroup$ Mar 8 '18 at 22:23

Your passengers would likely survive if the plane was somehow teleported into space. Depending on the plane.

Commercial passenger planes are capable of maintaining pressure differentials somewhere between 7.8 psi and 9.43 psi. If a plane was teleported from ground level into the vacuum of space, the instantaneous pressure differential would be 14.7 psi. Much less if the plane was already at altitude. Assuming the plane could survive that overpressure for a second or two the outflow safety valve would automatically open until the rated pressure differential was reached. The remaining air pressure in the airplane would be about twice that of the pressure at the summit of Everest. The oxygen masks would deploy and people would be generally fine for as long as the carbon dioxide stayed below dangerous levels.

In a small plane like a Cessna, the cabin isn't pressurized. Passengers would be exposed to the full vacuum of space instantly and die in a matter of minutes.

Being in orbit around a planet or in deep space doesn't make a difference.

  • $\begingroup$ Would the safety valve open, or would it close? $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Mar 8 '18 at 22:35
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn First one, then the other. It's an outflow valve. It's there to lower the pressure in the cabin to safe levels. It does this by opening, allowing the higher pressure inside the cabin to escape, then it closes once the safe value is reached. From Wikipedia: "The automatic controller normally maintains the proper cabin pressure altitude by constantly adjusting the outflow valve position so that the cabin altitude is as low as practical without exceeding the maximum pressure differential limit on the fuselage." $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Mar 8 '18 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ Pressurization and breathable air are bled from the engine compressors, which will not be operating very well in the vacuum of space. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Mar 12 '18 at 0:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Thucydides And they wouldn't have anything to pull in and pressurize. The air in the cabin will remain pressurized from being in atmosphere, it doesn't need to be pressurized by compressors. Additionally, the supplemental oxygen is in pressurized tanks. Planes have emergency power, life saving systems can be run without the engines running. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Mar 12 '18 at 1:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel this is super interesting. You wouldn't happen to have a sense of dangers beyond the changes in pressure - at what altitude are you exposed to a dangerous amount of radiation, what about maintaining temperature, etc $\endgroup$
    – user43053
    Apr 4 '18 at 19:56

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