My company wants to sell novelty cans (or other containers) of genuine space from various places in the Galaxy but unfortunately space smells - see the following expert's statement.

"Louis Allamandola, the founder and director of the Astrophysics and Astrochemistry Lab at NASA Ames Research Center ... says...Oxygen-rich stars... have aromas reminiscent of a charcoal grill. Once you leave our galaxy, the smells can get really interesting. In dark pockets of the universe, molecular clouds full of tiny dust particles host a veritable smorgasbord of odors, from wafts of sweet sugar to the rotten-egg stench of sulfur. - https://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-07/what-does-space-smell


How can the company purify genuine space to remove smelly compounds? They clearly can't pump it through filters. There is nothing to pump.


To satisfy trading laws, it must be real space imported from outside our atmosphere, not an artificial vacuum made on Earth.


I note from the answer by @GerardFalla that there may be some real-world applications for a very clean vacuum, quite apart from whether or not we can smell anything.


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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Feb 27 at 4:06

I think the primary limitation is going to be what is know as Odor Threshold Value or OTV. Per Wikipedia some materials that have very strong smells are (Z)-8-tetradecenal (OTV = 0.009 ppb in water) and p-vinylguaiacol (OTV = 10 ppb). Wikipedia also says that the density of matter (IE the stuff we would be smelling) has a "density of less than one hydrogen atom per cubic metre". So lets do some math. Just to REALLY push the limits here in the odds that we smell something, lets say that all the smell compounds are (Z)-8-tetradecena, and that where we "bottled" our space, the density was a full thousand times higher then normal space. This means we have a full 1 thousand molecules in a 1 Meter box that gets shipped to our customer. Excited, they pop the lid to take a giant wiff... and the surrounding air gets sucked into the box because its at a massively lower pressure.

So now we have 1000 molecules of p-vinylguaiacol mixed in with standard air. Some quick googling tells me that a 1 M^3 box of standard air will have about 2.53 x 10^25 atoms of O and N, + trace amounts of other stuff. So.... if we divide both numbers by 1,000.... we get 1 atom of p-vinylguaiacol for every 2.53 x 10^22 atoms. That's a ratio of .0000000000001 PPT or way WAAAY below 0.009 ppb needed to be smellable.

End result: Yes, you are right, there are things that technically could be smellable...... But only if we were to deliberately and massively compress them to significantly higher densities.

  • $\begingroup$ So,reading through the article that I cited in my question, you don't believe either the astronauts or the astrochemist? I'm not saying you're wrong and yet those people must be talking about something. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 26 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK: You (and the article) seem to be confusing what things floating around in space would smell like and what would actually happen if you tried to smell it. Sure, we can say that some group of chemicals has a certain smell on Earth, but if you went to a lightyear-wide dust cloud with those chemicals it would be so sparse that you can't possibly smell it (even ignoring the fact that you'd die if you took off your helmet to try). Any smells in your suit or ship aren't space smells, but rather suit/ship materials baking in the sun or freezing in the shade. $\endgroup$ – Giter Feb 26 at 19:28
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    $\begingroup$ xkcd.com/1217 I believe both of them, I just also am very cognizant of context and how very VERY easy it is to misuse science into something its not. The Astrochemist is absolutely correct in saying that the compounds that exist that would have certain smells. The 'chemist didn't say they existed in concentrations dense enough for us to smell them however. The 'naught also could have smelled things, but there is a bunch of possible reasons for those smells, dust (skin cells) on the surface of the suit could have been BBQd by UV rays during the 'walk.. $\endgroup$ – Corbin Matheson Feb 26 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for answering. There are others trying to answer but they have been stopped by some stick-in-the-muds putting the question on hold for no valid reason. This is getting out of hand. I'm really annoyed because I want to see all the answers and I can't even award a bonus now. If you feel the same way please vote to reopen (if you haven't already). Thanks. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 26 at 20:42

Set up a bottling plant outside the ISS. You don't actually put anything inside the bottles, as that takes care of itself. Guaranteed genuine space from outside our atmosphere, unless you're being too picky about stray hydrogen enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, but what about the smell? It is a real phenomenon. Space near the ISS is not a vacuum. At the very least it contains hydrocarbons (see the quote in my question from an expert). I'm happy for the bottling to take place outside the ISS but how to remove those smelly impurities? $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 26 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK: You create another bottling line which is open to space through scrubbing filters and sell the product as "refined space" at a 50% markup to the other ;-) $\endgroup$ – nzaman Feb 26 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not convinced. You are scrubbing space by passing it through a filter - how does that work? Any chance of a diagram? $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 26 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK: You're scrubbing particulates, like hydrocarbons and dust. A simple cloth filter, followed by an activated carbon filter and a soda filter. No need for pressure differentials $\endgroup$ – nzaman Feb 26 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ I'm getting some glimmerings of what you mean. I'd still like to see a simple diagram. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 26 at 18:12
  1. The human olfactory system does not work in a vacuum.

    And I don't mean interstellar space vacuum. It doesn't work in a moderate grade vacuum, such as, for example, inside a run of the mill vacuum tube.

    The input of the human (and indeed, vertebrate) olfactory system comes from the olfactory neurons in the olfactory epithelium, a mucous membrane inside the nose, "about 7 cm above and behind the nostrils".

    The olfactory receptors of terrestrial animals exist in an aqueous environment, yet detect odorants that are primarily hydrophobic. The aqueous solubility of hydrophobic odorants is greatly enhanced via odorant-binding proteins, which exist in the extracellular fluid surrounding the odorant receptors. (Wikipedia, s.v. Odorant-binding protein)

    Most liquids cannot exist in a vacuum; while water is indeed a most extraordinary liquid, it's not extraordinary enough, and it cannot remain in liquid form in a vacuum. No liquid water means that the olfactory neurons cannot work.

    The vaccum of space has no smell, because human smell doesn't work in a vacuum.

  2. Where is the ISS?

    The International Space Station orbits the Earth at about 400 km altitude. While from the point of view of a rocket engineer this is in outer space (because it's above the Kármán line where aerodynamic lift become negligible¹), from a geophysical point of view, the orbit of the ISS is in the middle of Earth's thermosphere. The thermosphere is the upper layer of the atmosphere where "ultraviolet radiation causes photoionization/photodissociation of molecules".

    ¹) More exactly, an aircraft would have to travel faster than the orbital velocity in order to obtain sufficient aerodynamic lift to sustain itself.

    In the exosphere, beginning at about 600 km (375 mi) above sea level, the atmosphere turns into space, although by the criteria set for the definition of the Kármán line, the thermosphere itself is part of space. (Wikipedia, s.v. Thermosphere)

  3. But, but... the cosmonauts said that they smelled something.

    No cosmonaut (or whatever "national" name this occupation has) has ever pretended that they smelled someting in a vacuum. (Quite obviously, because they didn't dare expose their noses to a vacuum, fearing that said noses may boil or freeze.) They all said that they smelled something inside their spacecraft after coming back from a spacewalk. They smelled the smell of own suits after being exposed to unfiltered ultraviolet radiation, and highly reactive atomic oxygen and nitrogen. Remember that from a geophysical point of view, the ISS is in the middle of the thermosphere.

  4. But but... they smelled something on the moon.

    [Professor Larry] Taylor said that when a geologist smashes a rock here on Earth, that person will smell some odor that has been generated by the smashing of minerals, thereby creating the so-called dangling bonds. But on the moon, the dangling bonds can exist for a long time, [Professor Larry] Taylor said. And because lunar rock and soil is roughly 43-percent oxygen, most of these unsatisfied bonds are from oxygen. "In a nut-shell, I believe that the astronauts all smelled unsatisfied dangling bonds on the lunar dust … which were readily satisfied in a second by the lunar module atmosphere, or nose membrane moisture". (Sarah Fecht, "Where Does The Moon's Smell Come From?", in Popular Science, August 27, 2014; quoting Professor Larry Taylor, at that time Director of the University of Tennessee Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences)

  5. But but... say one magically brings one cubic meter of interstellar space vacuum and plops it into a room; what would it smell like?

    It would not change the smell in the room. At all. (It would make a very loud bang when opening the magical box.)

    One cubic meter of interstellar vacuum contains 10⁵ to 10⁹ atoms or molecules, with an average of 10⁶ atoms or molecules per cubic meter. A cubic meter of air in normal conditions contains some 2.5×10²⁵ molecules. The atoms or molecules in the original cubic meter of interplanetary vacuum would be diluted by a factor of 10¹⁷ or more; human smell cannot detect a substance, any substance, present in a concentration of one hundreth of one millionth of a part per billion.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for answering. There are others trying to answer but they have been stopped by some stick-in-the-muds putting the question on hold for no valid reason. This is getting out of hand. I'm really annoyed because I want to see all the answers and I can't even award a bonus now. If you feel the same way please vote to reopen (if you haven't already). Thanks. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 26 at 20:41

I worked for a number of years for a firm called SAES Pure Gas, Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of SAES Getters, S.P.A. - why do we care?

Because SAES Pure Gas made (and still does make) some of the world's most effective UHP (Ultra-High Purity) gas purifiers. These are used in the semi-conductor fab industry, both as precursor bulk purifiers and in-line last point of control purifiers to prevent impurity breakthrough when flowing reaction gases to photolithography equipment - and where medical gases worry about purities of parts-per-million for human use, UHP gases are concerned with controlling impurity breakthrough at the parts-per-billion scale - and in their world, if there is a minor breakthrough, it will totally hose all the silicon wafers in the photolithography pipeline at the time, and contaminate the equipment, requiring that entire line to be taken offline and be meticulously cleaned and purged at the highest cleanroom specification you can imagine - like NASA's sattelite assembly facilities. This, as you can imagine, would be a very expensive big deal, hence the market for UHP Gas Purifiers.

At the level of pulling errant molecules out of vacuums, the operative system is not filters, but getters - typically barium getters. Getters have been in use in our electronics since the days of second-generation vacuum valves (tubes for my US readers) and were very broadly used in CRTs (Cathode Ray Tubes) including most consumer televisions back when the tube was king - a getter is a material which is reactive, and which will either chemically combine with the most commonly-expected impurities in a given vacuum system or which will adsorb impurity molecules into its surface, which is typically hyper-porous for this exact purpose -adsorbtion involves the adsorber material having enough available surface area to physically trap / adhere the relevant impurity molecules within that hyper-porous metallic spongiform reactant.

So - to answer Chasly directly: when the relevant vacuum capture reference sample is initially processed, the survey vessel assesses the most-commonly-found aromatic hydrocarbons which might convey odour, and formulates, onsite, a getter / adsorber combination material based on that reference sample's specific chemistry.

The getter is highly porous, and is adhered to the inner wall of your vacuum container. The rate of adsorbtion is duly noted, relative to the average aromatic hydrocarbon molecular density of the reference sample, and a loose prediction of "freshness" is printed on the canister label, after which there is no guarantee of "odour-free" nature. This means your vacuum samples have shrink and expiration dates - way better for marketing really: "warp-fresh vacuum from the perimeter of the Horsehead Nebula!".

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    $\begingroup$ Amazing answer, thank you. It covers everything and I hadn't even thought about the 'use by' date. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 26 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ Thinking further about your answer makes me realise that there may be many potential applications. Is it the case that for manufacturing electronics (and perhaps nano-technology) it would be worth having high vacuum space labs that have a very high quality and clean vacuum? $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 26 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ Oh yes - if one assumes we've handwavingly beaten energy-budget issues for serious space travel, the cleanroom specs which are currently used are based on number of air changes per minute, with high velocity air curtains at all entry points, everyone working in tyvek bunnysuits w/ eye protection and breath masks - all to avoid contamination FROM the people - if rather than that, we operate robotically, in a hard vacuum. with non-offgassing lubes for the robots, there are so many things which could benefit - and the presence of hard radiation might even be a benefit - total sterility. $\endgroup$ – GerardFalla Feb 26 at 16:34
  • $\begingroup$ P.S. Can you envisage any reason for importing containers of clean vacuum back to Earth? $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 26 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ R&D - not to mention if we could sample vacuum from specific given areas, the astrophysicists, the straight-up physicists, the nucleophysicists et al would be slavering to get at those samples. Hell, the radio astronomers might even want some, to compare expected results to sampled reality. Not to mention suddenly xenobiology might suddenly be a real going concern as a science had we samples from such places. Andromeda strain, anyone? $\endgroup$ – GerardFalla Feb 26 at 16:36

Step 1: Completely analyze the composition of the 'atmosphere' of the area of space you want to bottle.

Step 2: Decide which sub-components of that mix you want to use in your recipe for your 'authentic canned space for ________'.

Step 3: obtain cylinders of the selected gasses, in their purest filtered form, from the location.

Step 4: mix the purified gases in exactly the ratio prescribed by the recipe.

Step 5: can the mix, and sell as 'reconstituted pure authentic space from ______' All gases would be certified as being from that particular place.

Of course, a wise merchant would recognize the efficiency of bringing back super-condensed cylinders of the raw ingredients, and reconstituting them at the point of sale.

The point is, gases are gases, no matter where they are from. A cylinder of oxygen from galaxy A is the same as a cylinder of oxygen from galaxy B. So how do you determine if the gas is from A or from B? In fact, it all came from the same place, in the beginning.

It is the mix, or recipe, that differs from place to place.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm aiming for the high end of the market with unadulterated de-smelled fresh space. I suppose there might be a Poundland market for reconstituted-from-concentrate space as you seem to be suggesting. It would have to be clearly marked as such. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 26 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for answering. There are others trying to answer but they have been stopped by some stick-in-the-muds putting the question on hold for no valid reason. This is getting out of hand. I'm really annoyed because I want to see all the answers and I can't even award a bonus now. If you feel the same way please vote to reopen (if you haven't already). Thanks. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 26 at 20:41

A Serendipitous Biproduct of Old-Fashioned Spacetravel.

Of course, in these days of FTL travel, the romance of the old days of Sub-Light frontiersmen forging into the unknown facing who knows what dangers are gone.

The Company decided to sell the absence of nostalgia and romance in a way that evokes memories and emotions like no other - absence of smell. Each absence of smell is sold with it's own story of the intrepid pioneers that first explored that area, complete with it's own tastefull filmshow and music.

The Company has resorted to ancient tech. and has produced a fleet of gleaner-ships utilising Bussard ramjets. Originaly in bygone days, vast intense magnetic fields funnelled-in hydrogen to be accelerated in a stream to produce reaction thrust. In the process, other atoms and molecules get sucked in and The Company leapt at the opportunity to capture and anti-market these. After collecting their precious payload in the traditional way, the ships high-tail it back to the bottling-plant to be cryogenicaly purified and Compressified with proprietary technology, then the remaining Virginal-Space suitably packaged for the customers' delight.

The genuine frontier experience comes fresh to you.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting but when I look at the details of cryogenetic purification, the space would have to be pre-filtered, compressed, passed through a molecular sieve, etc. How would you suggest compressing space? There is nothing to compress. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 26 at 17:55
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    $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK Commercial secret, sorry - unless you want to buy a franchise , then we can talk. $\endgroup$ – Measure of despare. Feb 26 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK No, I've looked, as far as spatial compression tech goes, stone-wall is all I meet. All I can say is, "Marketing-Hype" has gottten the cosmetics industry and the alternative medicine business very rich over a long time, and could apply here. $\endgroup$ – Measure of despare. Feb 26 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for answering. There are others trying to answer but they have been stopped by some stick-in-the-muds putting the question on hold for no valid reason. This is getting out of hand. I'm really annoyed because I want to see all the answers and I can't even award a bonus now. If you feel the same way please vote to reopen (if you haven't already). Thanks. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 26 at 20:41

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