What is the fate of a deceased body in the cosmos?

The article explores the hypothetical scenario of an astronaut dying in space and the subsequent decomposition of the body. Although 21 astronauts have perished in space, the causes have been spacecraft malfunctions killing the entire crew, not individual health issues. But if an astronaut were to die alone in space, the body’s disposition would be critical to avoid contamination as it decays.

In the low-pressure vacuum of space, fluids on the body’s surface, such as from the skin, eyes, mouth, ears, and lungs, would instantly vaporize. Blood vessels near the surface could also rupture and bleed, even after death. The remaining water in the body would likely freeze due to space’s extremely low temperature of -454.81 degrees Fahrenheit (-270.45 degrees Celsius). Liquid loss and freezing could cause the body to enter a mummified state, essentially preserving it.

If bacteria were present on the body, they could begin to digest it. Research on the International Space Station (ISS) has shown that bacteria can survive in space for at least three years. While most of space is extremely cold, parts of it can also be incredibly hot. For instance, the surface of the ISS experiences temperatures ranging from -328 F to 392 F (-200 C to 200 C). In such a hot environment, the body’s decomposition would greatly accelerate.

Powerful radiation in space would also impact the body, breaking down carbon bonds and causing the skin and muscles to degrade. Once the body is ejected from the spacecraft, it would go into orbit, unless it encounters another object. Given the amount of space debris and satellites orbiting Earth, there’s a risk of collision.

NASA recommends going further into space and leaving the planetary orbit before releasing a body to mitigate this risk. A collision between a body and a spaceship or satellite could cause significant damage. If the body avoids collision, over time, it would slowly be drawn toward Earth by gravity and eventually burn up upon reentry into the atmosphere.

NASA is also developing a body bag that could preserve remains on a spaceship for 48 to 72 hours, enough time to return to Earth from the ISS. However, for missions with longer travel times, such as a Mars mission with a seven-month flight back to Earth, crews would need to find other options.

As spaceflights venture further away from Earth, NASA is preparing mission mortality procedures. Commercial spaceflight industry also needs to plan for handling death in space.

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