What Does the Moon Smell Like?

published on July 17, 2020

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left the surface of the Moon and climbed back into the lunar lander they brought a bunch of moon dust in with them half of this dust is superfine razor-sharp glass and it clings to everything it also according to almost all of the twelve

Astronauts who set foot on the moon smells like something about to catch fire or wet ashes or mostly spent gunpowder question is why all these smiles are related to

Combustion reactions which are pretty common here on earth this is a combustion reaction specifically this one this is also a combustion reaction but it is much faster because instead of getting the oxygen

From the atmosphere explosives have an oxidizer built right into the chemical structure of the fuel or they're paired with a strong oxidizer like potassium nitrate let's look at nitroglycerin an explosive using gunpowder here's what

Happens in theory when it explodes the thing is none of the gases produce smell like spent gunpowder or anything else you're breathing all of them in right now do you smell anything no but combustion reactions including

Explosive ones never happen perfectly lots of other products some of them not smelly and some of them quite smelly get formed these molecules wander up to the back of your nose where you have a small patch of neurons brain cells each of

Which has one type of small receptor that receptor is a protein that is partly inside the cell and partly sticking out into the empty space of your nose when a small molecule binds to a receptor it's neuron sends a signal up

To the brain which then weaves all of these signals together into something you recognize as a smell one molecule can activate a variety of receptors and most familiar smells are a combination of molecules so humans can smell a wide

Variety of things dogs still have us beat though we've got about 400 different types of smell receptors but dogs have over a thousand so back to the moon as you may have noticed it's not on fire and as far as we know there was no

Recent Civil War Reenactment there so what's causing these combustion or explosion like smells most moon astronauts agreed that the smell is explosive or combustion related which suggests it's not just some random fluke

So there must be some chemical process that caused the same or similar small molecules to wander into the astronauts noses this is not a crazy idea there's actually a fair bit of chemistry happening on the moon

The moon is constantly getting pummeled by ions from the Sun cosmic radiation and tiny meteorites crashing into its surface it's possible that all this abuse creates some molecules that could become smelly if they were to react with

Something else say the air in the lunar lander because there's no atmosphere on the moon these hypothetical molecules just sort of hang around until you'll notice that Buzz here is wearing a spacesuit so right at this very moment

He's not smelling the moon all the smelling happened after the moon walks inside the lunar lander in an atmosphere made up of nitrogen water vapor carbon dioxide and oxygen also remember down here on earth combustion smells are

Caused by carbon-based molecules reacting with oxygen okay now this is where we get into educated guesswork we don't know exactly what happened up there but there are a few theories floating around on the internet also

Known as the theory machine possibly the simplest explanation for what was going on is the desert rain effect we made a video about this basically dry moon dust hitched a ride into the lander and then water in the Landers atmosphere it

Liberated small smelly molecules trapped in the dust these molecules then walked it in two buzzes nose another similar explanation is that larger carbon-based molecules trapped in moon dust were slowly oxidized by the oxygen and the

Landers atmosphere breaking down into small smelly molecules that walked it into buzzes nose this is sort of like a super slow-motion combustion or explosion reaction but as a winner dust expert we talked to pointed out we

Haven't yet found any small smelly molecules trapped in moon dust nor have we found any larger carbon-based molecules that might break down into smaller smelly ones like sand here on earth moon dust contains lots of mineral

Fragments and glassy shards but they don't smell some scientists think that free radicals might have something to do with the smell free radicals are formed when cosmic or solar radiation knocks an electron off of a molecule in the dust

Forming highly reactive species that are missing their full set of eight electrons other scientists think ions from the Sun might be involved and then there are micro meteorites which are exactly what they sound like and can

Create free radicals and ions the idea here is that free radicals are ion's could be formed in the moondust and then react with the atmosphere in the lander producing the spent gunpowder smell or in a related twist the free

Radicals themselves react directly with cell membranes in your nose tricking your brain into thinking that you are smelling something the problem with that last theory as our small and gunpowder experts pointed out is that if there

Really were lots of free radicals getting into your nose and reacting with everything you wouldn't smell much you would just feel a lot of pain for this episode we talked to two experts and lunar dust an explosives expert and a

Smell expert each scientists had their own take on what was most plausible some pointed out that it could be a combination of things most of our experts seem to think that either carbon-based molecules free

Radicals or ions and moon dust reacted with the Landers atmosphere producing the smell but all of them agreed that the only way to find out is to actually get our hands on some fresh moon dust and run some real experiments which

Means going back to the moon what theory do you think is most plausible let us know in the comments links to all sources are in the description have fun going down the rabbit hole and see you next week PBS is

Bringing you the universe with summer of space which includes six incredible new science and history shows streaming on PBS org and the PBS video app along with lots of space ESO Drumm PBS Digital Studios creators follow me over – yawns

– check out their summer of space episode on celestial cycles and Earth's climate

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