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Suppose you were puttering around the solar system and came across the remains of a luxury passenger vessel, the intergalactic equivalent of the Titanic, adrift about one AU from the sun. The hull was shattered, with thousands of souls aboard living in a comfortable, shirt-sleeve environment before meeting a sudden and horrible death. But instead of freezing seawater, the human remains were left entombed in outer space. What do they look like, after 73 years (the same number of years between the sinking of the Titanic and its discovery in 1985)?

  • Would they be completely intact? Merely recognizable? Atomized?
  • What tissues would remain? Would they be discolored? Scarred? Burned?
  • Would their bodily fluids have frozen? Boiled away?
  • Would they be stiff, brittle, or pliable? How would zero gravity pose them?
  • Would they be distorted in shape, e.g. tend toward becoming spherical?
  • Would their clothes be preserved, tattered, or obliterated?
  • Would the bodies be completely still, or would they be rotating? Perhaps slowly and in unison (creepy!) due to angular momentum?

Looking for the realistic, gory details.

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  • $\begingroup$ You may be interested in my question about bringing a body back inside after being in vacuum, asked on SpaceExploration.se as well as the other questions I referred to in that question text $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Jul 19 '18 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ There's a Dr. Who episode about that... $\endgroup$ – Michael Borgwardt Jul 19 '18 at 11:30
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    $\begingroup$ Part of your question depends very much upon the build and the exact description of the accident that happened. Can you provide some details to that? $\endgroup$ – Daniel Jul 19 '18 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ relevant xkcd $\endgroup$ – Jake Jul 19 '18 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ are they in the shade? $\endgroup$ – Jodrell Jul 19 '18 at 15:08
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Well, strange as it may sound, space has some aspects which help preserving a body... let's look at it more closely.

Vacuum

The extremely low pressure found in space means that any liquid will quickly evaporate. As mummies in the desert hint, lack of water is a good way to preserve organic matter. The corpses will be shrunk due to the loss of water, but will not be rotten. I expect some peculiar behavior of eyes, as they are mostly watery. Bacteria normally taking care of decomposition need water and oxygen, two items which in space are pretty rare.

Since a human body is about 60% water, the corpses, after losing all their water, would weight about 60% less. So, a 90 kg once alive astronaut would be a 36 kg corpse.

Radiation

That can be nasty, especially on organic matter. But the corpses, being inside, will have some shielding from direct exposure to radiation. They will likely show some darkening due to photocathalyzed reactions, and maybe embrittlement of hairs due to the combined dehydratation and radiation exposure. Their clothes would be probably bleached white (or going in that direction).

If you want some visual reference of how they might look like, take some bleached shirt and put it on Oetzi.

Being almost at rest with respect to the ship where they were, I don't expect big changes in their position. Maybe some slow drift, with movements induced by the evaporating gases in the very first moments of the incident.

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  • $\begingroup$ As long as you are inside the ship´s remains, shielded from sun, chances are you would freeze up instead of dry out: cnet.com/news/… $\endgroup$ – Daniel Jul 19 '18 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ And once you were frozen, the volatiles would sublimate. Vapor pressure of everything in space is near zero. Whether the liquids freeze then sublimate or evaporate directly will depend on the heat input. $\endgroup$ – Aliden Jul 19 '18 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Aliden: How long does this process take? There is ice in space - comets are slowly evaporation ice-balls AFAIK. Will you be mummified already after 73 years at -270° C or is it a matter of centuries? $\endgroup$ – Daniel Jul 19 '18 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Daniel Good question; I'm not sure. I would guess that something the size of a human would lose the remainder of its water pretty quickly, but that's based on experience at room temperature, which may not give the best intuition in extremely cold conditions. $\endgroup$ – Aliden Jul 19 '18 at 20:15
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Would they be completely intact? Merely recognizable?

More like "barely recognizable". You'd basically have freeze-dried mummies. The answer from @L.Dutch has mentioned Ötzi, and that's probably not too far off, although I don't think radiation would be a huge factor since I'd expect the inside of a spaceship to be appropriately shielded. However, if they are exposed to sunlight via windows or holes in the hull, they might indeed be darkened with bleached clothes.

As for the positioning of the bodies, they would most likely not be floating around.

You wrote that "The hull was shattered", which implies an impact, which would leave the spaceship rotating. In fact, any kind of hull breach would almost certainly lead to rotation due to repulsion from the escaping atmosphere. And even a very slow rotation would eventually deposit all loose objects in each room on the surface farthest away from the axis of rotation (or stuck on the way there).

However, the force keeping them there would, for a slow rotation, be minuscule. So even a light touch could overcome it and cause a body to flot around for a while.

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