Space is a vast and wondrous place, and scientists are constantly discovering new facts that challenge humanity’s understanding of outer space. While astronauts have thoroughly explored conditions in low Earth orbit and even ventured to the moon, far outside the boundaries of the solar system lurk strange and unusual celestial formations. These unexplained phenomena may seem peculiar, but further study may yield answers about the very nature of the universe.
The Smell of Space
If you were to spend any time spacewalking outside the International Space Station, you would notice one of the strangest space phenomena ever discovered once you returned to the airlock and took off your helmet. Astronauts who have spacewalked regularly report that space has a noticeable odor, like hot metal or welding fumes. Scientists theorize that the odor comes from particles orbiting Earth above the atmosphere, since the area nearest the planet would contain slightly more particles than space further away from the planet. These particles stick to spacesuits and tools, and the odor remains noticeable for some time after the astronaut returns through the airlock.
When you think of a star, you probably envision a fiery nuclear furnace burning at unimaginable temperatures. But the composition of a star can vary throughout its life cycle, and certain types of stars can cool to almost unbelievable temperatures. In 2011, astronomers discovered a brown dwarf star that had cooled to a surface temperature of 97 degrees Celsius (206 degrees Fahrenheit), or the approximate temperature of a fresh cup of coffee. Not long after, the Spitzer Space Telescope identified an even cooler brown dwarf star, WISE 1828+2650, whose surface temperature approximates a warm summer day at 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).
Water in Space
The discovery of water in space is always an exciting one, since water is one of the fundamental building blocks of life and represents a valuable resource. In 2011, however, astronomers discovered a vast reservoir of water in space that dwarfs every other discovery of its kind. The quasar APM 08279+5255 contains a black hole at its center, and as the black hole consumes gas and dust, it creates a vast cloud of water vapor around itself. The water cloud contains more than 140 trillion times as much water as exists in the oceans of Earth, and no one knows how much more water may accumulate before the quasar collapses.
In addition to water clouds, other vapor clouds exist containing more complex molecules. The Sagittarius B2 cloud near the center of the galaxy, almost 26,000 light-years away, contains a vast sea of alcohol. After a radio telescope detected the unique molecular structure of methanol and ethanol, astronomers estimated that the equivalent of 10 billion billion billion liters of alcohol (or a 1 with 28 zeroes after it) is present in the cloud. This vast cloud may hold clues to explain how complex molecules, the precursors to life, form in the vast distances between stars.