Have you ever wondered what happens if one day you end up living in outer space? Think about it. With Elon Musk and his company shooting for a colony on Mars, life in space may not be so far out. So in keeping with that idea, what would happen if the unthinkable happened and you or someone you know perished? Or to bring it a little closer to present-day reality, what if an astronaut died while in space?
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What causes death in outer space and what happens when someone experiences it? While we’ve all heard about various tragedies that occurred to those in space, what happens to them is rarely discussed. Well, whether you’re a sci-fi writer or you’re simply curious, here’s everything you want to know.
What Happens to a Human Body When It Dies in Outer Space?
You might be familiar with what happens when you die here on Earth. But in space? That’s another topic. The human body is pretty resilient when it comes to daily life on Earth. We can get sick, injured, and even survive a near-death experience. But in the farthest reaches of the galaxy, there’s no going back.
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1. You could be indefinitely preserved
It’s a nightmare scenario. You’re out in space, fixing some part of the ship when your tether becomes detached. Or perhaps you’re in the ship trying to fix some massive malfunction when an airlock opens, exposing you to the void beyond. Either way, you have about fifteen seconds before you lose all consciousness. At least that’s what we’ve seen in movies about space.
Should your worst-case scenario occur and no one is able to rescue you before you’re exposed to the great beyond, here’s one thing that could happen after a rather quick death: body preservation.
Much of outer space is cold. Freezing cold. Around -400 degrees Fahrenheit, to be exact. So, if you should so happen to perish while floating above our small blue planet, after losing consciousness, your body could simply freeze if it’s cold enough. If you’re outside of a spacesuit, your body would freeze so quickly that your insides and outsides would be preserved just as well as if you had been stored in a freezer.
Your body has enough heat to keep you going for fifteen seconds before you lose consciousness, but beyond that, the temperature in your limbs and core would plummet dramatically. So fast, that there would be next to no time for any decay. You would then remain in this state indefinitely unless you were pulled toward a heat source — and then the next two things might occur.
2. You could be incinerated
Here’s another worst case scenario. You’re a scientist traveling as close as possible to the sun to take pictures, measurements, and determine once and for all what’s inside the molten core. Then the unthinkable happens. Your spaceship goes off its trajectory and teeters dangerously closer than you should be. If you don’t steer it away soon, you know what’s coming.
Unable to save the ship, you eject yourself in a last-ditch attempt to preserve your life but it’s too late. You’re too close to the sun. Within seconds, you and your spaceship are completely incinerated. It happens so fast you didn’t feel a thing. Since the coolest area on the sun is a chilly 3.6 million degrees Fahrenheit, death would occur instantly near the bright star. You’d be spared from all but the terrifying few minutes while catapulting toward it.
3. You could be mummified
Let’s say you’re in space and, thankfully, not near the sun. Maybe you’re even in your spacesuit. You’ll still pass out after a short fifteen seconds. However, your body will begin to decay very slowly, because space is so cold.
If your body happened to float near a body of warmth such as a planet or a star, the heat would be increased enough that, rather than freeze or incinerate, your body would eventually become mummified instead.
4. You will expand but not explode
Space movies are all about creating drama with a leak in someone’s spacesuit. What happens in those films? In some of the earliest space films, the person imploded or exploded. Reality is thankfully far less gruesome. You will expand a bit, but you won’t explode.
If your body was exposed to space, the water in your skin and blood will vaporize due to the lack of atmospheric pressure. The vaporization will cause your body to expand a bit. However, your skin is surprisingly durable and resilient enough to hold your body together during this process.
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5. You could float around indefinitely
One thing most space movies get right once they decide to kill off a character is the fact that they will be floating in space indefinitely. They just tend to float off while unconscious.
Space has no wind and no gravitational force. Because of this, you could very possibly float for an indefinite amount of time in the great black void. Your body might be frozen or mummified but it’ll be floating around somewhere until a large star or planet’s gravitational force pulls it in.
6. You could crash land
It’s true that space itself has no gravitational force or wind. Individual planets and stars do have some gravitational pull. During your float through space if you happen to come near a large object like a planet, you just might be pulled in toward it.
Depending on the planet’s atmosphere and pull, you could end up orbiting it for eons or eventually be drawn in and crash land. If you crash landed, there probably wouldn’t be much of you left at that point, since you might burn up on entry before you touched down.
7. You could start life on a planet
I know what you’re thinking and yes, you’re still dead in this scenario. So how could you single handedly start life on another planet? Let’s say you successfully crash-landed on a planet. Your body could very well thaw from its frozen float-trip through space and start to decay again as it gets warmer.
If you didn’t burn up on entry, you’d land on a planet that probably couldn’t support human life but it just might support the organisms that live inside of you. As the organisms continued to break down your body, they just might find the ability to survive. Life on another planet would be born.
Dying in Space: FAQs
Still curious about facing your future as a Martian citizen? Here are a few questions you might want to be answered before you board a rocket ship and take a trip into the future.
What kills you in space?
It might be a bit of a shocker to realize that the reason for death isn’t the sun’s rays, the lack of gravitational force, or the absence of a pressurized atmosphere (though that certainly plays a part). What ultimately kills you in space is the lack of oxygen.
In space, there is no air. It’s basically an unending void (or vacuum as it's known). So you are exposed to the giant void without a spacesuit and oxygen tank, you’ll pass out in fifteen seconds. Unless rescued and pulled back into the spaceship, you’ll stay in an unconscious state until your body dies from lack of oxygen in around 90 seconds.
How long does it take you to die in space?
If you pass out from lack of oxygen, your body has about two minutes’ worth of the necessary molecule to keep you alive. After the two minute mark, you will need to be resuscitated. Otherwise irreversible brain damage will occur, your organs will begin shutting down, and death will quickly approach.
Thankfully you won’t experience an excruciating and painful two-minute wait watching yourself float away from the spaceship. In about fifteen seconds, you won’t know what’s going on at all because you’ll become unconscious. So you won’t feel a thing.
Are there any dead bodies in space?
Americans have been sending astronauts into space ever since the space program shot Alan Shepherd into a suborbital flight back in 1961. From that time to today, a number of astronauts have died in space. However, when these deaths occurred, most perished in their spaceship upon re-entry when something malfunctioned.
There is one man, however, who has come closest to being buried on the moon — Dr. Eugene Shoemaker. As the founder of the study of planetary science, he was involved in space exploration from the get-go. He even discovered a comet that was named after him. Needless to say, when he passed away, he wished he could be buried as close to the moon as possible.
Thanks to one company’s unique and enterprising methods, Dr. Shoemaker got to have a portion of his cremains placed onto the moon’s surface, where he’ll forever remain.
Since that time, the concept of space burials has become quite popular and many around the world are looking to take advantage of such a unique option. Unfortunately, the price tag might be a bit much for many, considering a similar lunar burial to Dr. Shoemaker’s will set you back around $9-12k.
If you’re willing to come closer to the earth’s orbit, you can have a gram of your cremains shot into the great void for around $2,500. Granted, it’s a rather small amount of your ashes, but if you’ve always wanted to be an astronaut and float around the earth, this might be your chance to do it.
Death in Space
As opposed to many sci-fi books and movies, dying in space may not be as terrifying as it is often portrayed. What happens to your body afterward may be pretty trippy were you to watch it, but beyond the fifteen-second realization that you’re about to pass out, it’s a pretty quick trip to the other side.
- Tracey, James. “Here’s How NASA Plans to Dispose of Dead Bodies in Space.” Weird Science, Outer Places, 29 April 2016. outerplaces.com/science/item/11997-here-s-how-nasa-plans-to-dispose-of-dead-bodies-in-space
- Stirone, Shannon. “What Happens to Your Body When You Die in Space?” Space, Popular Science, 20 January 2017. popsci.com/what-happens-to-your-body-when-you-die-in-space/
- Starr, Michelle. “What Happens to the Unprotected Human Body in Space?” News, CNET, 27 July 2014. cnet.com/news/what-happens-to-the-unprotected-human-body-in-space/