Consequences of a Corpse in the Vacuum of Space

Consequences of a Corpse in the Vacuum of Space

Key Takeaways:

  1. Space presents a hostile environment with extreme temperatures and radiation, posing significant challenges to astronauts’ bodies.
  2. Post-mortem, bodily fluids vaporize instantly in space’s vacuum, leading to rapid decomposition and potential mummification.
  3. Microbes can survive in space, accelerating the decomposition process, especially in areas with elevated temperatures.
  4. Collision with space debris and satellites is a real risk for ejected cadavers, highlighting the importance of careful disposal protocols.
  5. NASA is actively developing methods to handle mortality in space missions, emphasizing the need for preparedness in the face of unforeseen circumstances.

In the realm of the cosmos, a brutal environment prevails, characterized by frigid temperatures, perilous radiation, and the absence of atmosphere. Considering such conditions, what would be the fate of an astronaut’s corporeal form subjected to the unforgiving elements of space?

Envision a scenario where an astronaut, mid-spacewalk, suddenly succumbs to cardiac arrest, meeting their demise mere moments thereafter.

Fortunately, such a calamity remains purely hypothetical. While the annals of space exploration document 21 fatalities, attributed mostly to spacecraft malfunctions resulting in the loss of entire crews, singular health-related casualties have yet to occur. However, should such an eventuality arise, necessitating the handling of the deceased crew member’s remains becomes imperative to mitigate potential contamination as decomposition sets in. One plausible course of action? Ejection into the void of space.

Amidst the stark expanse of space, how would the lifeless form deteriorate? And where might its journey lead?

Within the vacuum of space’s low-pressure environment, bodily fluids—be it from the skin, eyes, mouth, ears, or lungs—would instantaneously vaporize, elucidates Jimmy Wu, principal engineer at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas. Wu further posits that even post-mortem, blood vessels near the surface could rupture, resulting in hemorrhaging. Additionally, the residual moisture within the body would likely congeal into ice crystals owing to space’s baseline temperature plummeting to a staggering minus 454.81 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 270.45 degrees Celsius). The culmination of fluid loss and cryogenic conditions could induce a state of mummification, effectively preserving the cadaver. “Conceivably, the cadaver may assume the appearance of a desiccated entity adrift in space,” Wu muses.

Any astronaut exposed to the vacuum of space sans protective attire would inevitably meet a similar fate. The subsequent events hinge greatly on the presence of microbial life.

Empirical studies conducted aboard the International Space Station (ISS) affirm the resilience of certain bacteria in extraterrestrial environs, surviving upwards of three years. Should microbial entities persist on the cadaver, they would commence the process of putrefaction. While the recesses of space predominantly offer sub-zero temperatures, localized extremes exist—temperatures fluctuate on the ISS surface, oscillating between minus 328 F and 392 F (minus 200 C to 200 C). In environments favoring elevated temperatures, the pace of decomposition would be markedly hastened.

Moreover, the intense radiation permeating space would precipitate significant molecular degradation, disintegrating carbon bonds and catalyzing the decay of epidermal and muscular tissues.

Post-ejection from the spacecraft, the desiccated and decomposing cadaver would assume a trajectory dictated by the imparted momentum—unless it intersects with another celestial body.

Given the proliferation of space debris and satellites encircling Earth, the prospect of collision looms as a tangible threat, as elucidated by Myles Harris, a doctoral candidate at the University College London Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction.

To circumvent this peril, NASA advocates for interstellar voyages, advising against planetary proximity during the disposal of remains. “The body, a substantial mass, poses a considerable hazard,” Wu asserts. A collision between the cadaver and a spacecraft or satellite could precipitate dire consequences for all parties involved.

In the event the cadaver evades encounters with orbital installations and space debris, gravitational forces would inexorably draw it closer to Earth, particularly if the demise occurs within low Earth orbit—roughly 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) or less from the planet’s surface. Ultimately, the zenith of the cadaver’s interstellar odyssey would be its fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, culminating in complete incineration.

Space burial emerges as an alternative to post-mortem spacecraft ejection, albeit fraught with the risk of planetary contamination. Concurrently, NASA endeavors to engineer a body containment apparatus capable of preserving remains onboard spacecraft for 48 to 72 hours—an ample duration for return voyages from the ISS. However, protracted excursions, such as a Mars mission entailing a seven-month transit back to Earth, necessitate alternative contingencies.

With the frontiers of space exploration extending beyond terrestrial confines, NASA remains vigilant in formulating protocols for mortality in space missions. Harris underscores the imperative of readiness, remarking, “Though ideally a remote possibility, we must prepare for its eventuality.”

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