What happens after you're tossed out of the airlock?
October 27, 2006 7:43 AM   Subscribe

Lost in space... forever? What happens after you're tossed out of the airlock?

OK, we've all seen it countless times in science fiction films and TV shows. The captain gets wise to the bad guy and tosses him into the cold, vast vacuum of space to die. Or the hero is given a burial-at-space and her flag-draped casket is released out of the space ship. Or President Roslyn learns that you're a frakking Cylon and tosses you out of the airlock. ;-)

Here's my question: after the bad guy dies, what happens to his body and space suit? It's in a vacuum, so there are no forces to cause it to deteriorate, correct? Does it float until it loses its momentum, so it just sits in space forever? Provided it doesn't get snatched by the gravity of a large or moving mass, it'll just be there forever, right?
posted by the matching mole to Science & Nature (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
It will never lose its momentum...there is no resistence in space, correct? Also, wouldn't the lack of pressure cause the body to expand till bursting, scattering millions of bits of bad guy that will float forever?
posted by spicynuts at 7:49 AM on October 27, 2006


Volatile liquids will boil off in a vacuum, so it's not totally accurate to say it won't deteriorate. An unprotected human body would be vacuum dried and shrivel up a lot. If you're near a star, you'll also possibly burn - direct sunlight is surprisingly hot without an atmosphere to protect you.

If you're wearing anything metal, it may get fused to itself via vacuum welding - bare metal surfaces that touch in a vacuum will apparently fuse after a time. I can't find any references for that though and it's something I've only hear about anecdotally.
posted by GuyZero at 7:52 AM on October 27, 2006 [1 favorite]


spicynuts, I thought that too, but multiple sources suggest that's not the case. They don't say what happens long-term though. Apparently the potential for sun burns is extreme. Would the burning effect continue after you die?
posted by stopgap at 7:55 AM on October 27, 2006


wouldn't the lack of pressure cause the body to expand till bursting, scattering millions of bits of bad guy that will float forever?

Unfortunately, no.
And When I say you'll dry out, it doesn't happen all that fast. But eventually.
posted by GuyZero at 7:57 AM on October 27, 2006 [1 favorite]


Provided it doesn't get snatched by the gravity of a large or moving mass, it'll just be there forever, right?

nah, that's not really how gravity works. everything in the universe is constantly exerting a gravitational attractive force on everything else in the universe. nearby objects exert the strongest force, but given enough time the alien queen will get pulled in towards something.

also there are gas molecules (mostly hydrogen) out there that will exert a small, but finite drag on stuff that moves through it.

most likely what would happen is the bad guy would end up essentially freeze-dried, and the atoms of his corpse and spacesuit etc would sublimate into the vacuum. this too would happen very slowly. so i'd say that unless the villain were launched directly at a massive object, they'd be out there for what amounts to forever on a human time scale.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 8:02 AM on October 27, 2006


It will maintain the velocity imparted, unless acted upon by external forces. There will be some gravitic effects (albeit probably close to negligible for such a small object at a large distance), and there is a slight "cosmic particle" presence - very low density of gas, etc. - in the vacuum of space that may gradually ablate the outer layers of the body, and perhaps slow if down over time.
There's also been proposals and suggestions that ejecta will actually remain alongside the ship, as it is travelling with the same intrinsic velocity as the rest of the ship, and only has a slight lateral difference in motion...

Not too sure about the expand-until-burst scenario - there's several theoretical possibilities (ruptured soft tissue causing bleeding from eyes/ears/nose, etc.) and as far as I know it hasn't been tested in reality.
Solar radiation will probably to a good job of destroying organic tissue, unless the body is substantially protected, and I'd have thought that anaerobic bacteria would also play a part in the biological degredation, for a short period at least - until the body reaches thermal equilibrium with space, and all liquid has frozen. After that... hmm.

On preview... yeah.
posted by Chunder at 8:04 AM on October 27, 2006


The big problem in space isn't keeping warm, it's keeping cool. Space is 'cold', but it's mostly vacuum, meaning that it doesn't conduct much heat away from you. Any heat input (like from a nearby star) is a pressing problem in vacuum.

You'd stay warm a long time, but I think all your fluids would outgas, likely making quite the mess. You'd probably end up a withered husk, possibly charred if you were close to a star. Once you'd huskified, you could probably float for millions of years.

If you went adrift in a suit, you probably wouldn't outgas, at least not quickly, and you'd probably rot pretty thoroughly before enough pressure leaked out of the suit for all the bacteria to die.
posted by Malor at 8:05 AM on October 27, 2006 [1 favorite]


Billions of years ago, the astronaut's matter was scattered among various stars. Those stars went nova, spreading their matter out across the galaxy. The matter that eventually went into the astronaut happened to end up with a cloud of other matter and formed a planet, while other nearby matter became a star.

Now he's floating in space, again, dead. In some time, I imagine he'll wind up in a cloud of gas, which will eventually form into a planet, and in a few billion years, maybe he'll finally be turned back into an astronaut. After another unfortunate run-in with the Captain, he gets to repeat the process all over again.
posted by dsword at 8:09 AM on October 27, 2006 [1 favorite]


The Straight Dope contradicts the expand till bursting theory although he doesn't address what happens to the body. A lot depends on where the body is. Anywhere close to low earth orbit and there will be enough atmospheric drag to cause the orbit to decay and the body to reenter the atmosphere where it should make quite a fireball. If it is further out then its velocity when released will determine whether it orbits the Earth indefinitely or drifts out into interplanetary space. If the latter occurs, then it might get trapped either orbiting or crashing into another planet, moon, or other body. If it escapes that fate then it will drift into interstellar space, where it is much more likely to drift forever, although it will probably eventually (thousands? millions? billions of years?) encounter a celestial body with enough gravity to drag it in.
posted by TedW at 8:22 AM on October 27, 2006


Well duh, you'ld obviously be picked up by a race of intelligent machines, repaired, and sent back to earth with only a small part of your memory intact. You will wreak havoc and chaos until a crew of upstanding star fleet officers finally defeat you by banishing you to a higher realm of existence. [reference]
posted by blue_beetle at 8:24 AM on October 27, 2006 [1 favorite]


In the more gruesome limit, I imagine that his body would be processed very quickly by the bacteria living within it, turning him into a nasty floating pile of goo.

Later, his suit would be compromised (perhaps by a tiny piece of rock that passed by), and the goo would be blown into space by the radiation from the nearest star. The water--which makes up most of the poor astronaut--would be blown away fairly quickly.

Much later, he would simply be a pile of bones (they would last a very long time), flying, along with the most most durable parts of his spacesuit, into the future that I sketched above. Meanwhile, his skeleton would be riddled with holes by space debris.
posted by dsword at 8:24 AM on October 27, 2006


Here's my question: after the bad guy dies, what happens to his body and space suit? It's in a vacuum, so there are no forces to cause it to deteriorate, correct? Does it float until it loses its momentum, so it just sits in space forever? Provided it doesn't get snatched by the gravity of a large or moving mass, it'll just be there forever, right?

Assuming that the physics of the universe correspond to Newton or Einstein, it will follow the trajectory the ship had at the time it was pushed out of the airlock, until the ship accelerates and/or changes trajectory.

Of course, most of these stories take place in a fantasy universe, where the same force of dramatic license that transmits blaster sounds and explosion shockwaves would cause the body to behave in a way most like to make the audience gasp.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:41 AM on October 27, 2006


I'm voting for space mummy. The volatile gases would go nice and quick and the moisture along with it not much later, since the body would still be warm. Under zero pressure, water wants to be a vapor above 200 Kelvin. My guess is that a lot of the surace moisture would boil off until the body got colder due to blackbody (heh) radiation. So, after a while, remaining moisture would be in the form of ice. The eyes might go, they might not. Certainly some bloody froth on the lips and possibly some, uh, action downstairs. After some blood vessels rupture to space (possibly from being shot on the way out), that's when you'd get the real boiling away, but if they didn't, I don't think you'd get much moisture loss from anything but the mucous membranes and the top layers of tissue.

I suspect that proton wind, cosmic rays, et al, would cause most of the complex molecules to deteriorate, so the suit would go after a year or two, turning to shiny rags. Micrometeorite punctures will begin to give a slightly spongy effect.

As to the direction of the space mummy, that depends on the original trajectory of the ship. If the ship was in a stable orbit, tossing the astronaut out would be a slight deviation away from stable, so you're looking at either a decaying (heh) orbit back to the planet/star, or escape velocity and it drifts away from the planet/star, possibly out of the solar system. Escape velocity from a few thousand miles up is about 7.1km/sec, so it would have to be a very hefty shove. You'd need even more to escape the Sun's gravity. So, most likely your buddy would drop back into the planet's atmosphere and go whoosh, or he'd become a very tiny comet in a highly eccentric orbit around the Sun. In the case of dropping back into the planet's atmosphere, you might not have time to get a space mummy.

If your ship wasn't in orbit and was between solar systems, you'd get a great space mummy that would take quite some time to reach the next solar system.
posted by adipocere at 8:48 AM on October 27, 2006 [1 favorite]


I think there was a Stanislaw Lem book where everything the astronaut pushed out his airlock went into orbit around his ship, so his ship slowly turned into a tiny little solar system of trash. Tales of Pirx the Polit, eprhaps?

Anyway, there's the outside possibility that if pushed just so that the body would orbit the ship. Spooky.
posted by GuyZero at 8:57 AM on October 27, 2006


In the more gruesome limit, I imagine that his body would be processed very quickly by the bacteria living within it, turning him into a nasty floating pile of goo.

Can bacteria live without oxygen?
posted by orange swan at 9:04 AM on October 27, 2006


I propose that NASA test these theories by jettisoning a kitten at their earliest possible convenience.

That said, you would not violently explode, but I have no doubt that there would be at least some soft-tissue expansion/rupturing, as much of your basic structures are designed to push against a certain amount of pressure.

Once that happened, you would dessicate rather rapidly.
posted by kaseijin at 9:06 AM on October 27, 2006


Anaerobic bacteria can live without O2, yes. But I forget how much component normal flora in our bodies is anaerobic - my guess is not that much.

I believe the core body temperature will decrease so that if there is any residual bug activity in zero gravity (?) then it will be minimal and perhaps selflimiting/not particularly important to the process of degradation.

If we take it that the eyes and mouth are closed then there will be little in the way of evaporative moisture. I think the skin will become leather from the heat/cosmic rays but I don't believe that this will cause much in the way of fluid loss - I may be wrong. I think the gases in the closed system with the suit will equilibrate with the body, meaning that there may be a modest gaseous/liquid loss but it won't be much.

So I agree with the mummy idea. Slow leatherizing of the skin and a very very slow loss of moisture over many years. It would end up in 10 or 50 years a shrivelled (and by how much is a debatable factor) mummy, burnt or burnished on the outside and frozen-ish on the inside. It could take thousands of years to be obliterated completely. [0.02c]
posted by peacay at 9:18 AM on October 27, 2006


There are a lot of anaerobes in our body, mostly in the gut; they can be responsible for a lot of the decomposition after death. The big question is whether the body would cool down or dry out before significant decomposition occurs. I concur with the kitten-tossing idea; perhaps a group of schoolkids could arrange for it to be included in the next batch of space shuttle experiments.

And I thought this was eponysterical.
posted by TedW at 9:45 AM on October 27, 2006


On the off-chance this is one of those NaNoWriMo questions, I vote for GuyZero's suggestion — wonderfully creepy.

If the pressure change didn't make a body explode, wouldn't it at least cause bruising and swelling like crazy? Even an incomplete vacuum can give you a hell of a hickey.

(And speaking of things that an incomplete vacuum can give you, could space act like a sort of penis pump? In fact, wouldn't the entire body eventually deform according to its elasticity? If anything's creepier than being orbited by your mummified friend, it's being orbited by your friend's giant mummified hard-on.)

Shit. There goes my last shot at elected office.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:50 AM on October 27, 2006 [2 favorites]


nebulawindphone writes "If the pressure change didn't make a body explode, wouldn't it at least cause bruising and swelling like crazy? Even an incomplete vacuum can give you a hell of a hickey. "

I don't know the answer to this, but you also have to consider that once your heart stops, your blood pressure drops pretty quickly. It's possible to burst all those capillaries during a make-out session because they're under pressure. Your heart might keep going for about a minute or so after you're thrown out of the airlock, though...
posted by mr_roboto at 11:41 AM on October 27, 2006


I'm with Chunder's particulate damage theory, if only because the words "ablate," "ejecta," and "albeit" were used in the same paragraph.

Seven hours and no reference to the infinite improbability drive?
posted by Phred182 at 3:27 PM on October 27, 2006


To follow up the delightful musings of the wonderfully-appropriately named adipocere, the space mummy must, of course, imply the astro zombie.
posted by mwhybark at 11:07 PM on October 27, 2006


Also see previous thread in the blue.
posted by brownpau at 4:06 AM on October 29, 2006


Damn Interesting on outer space exposure.
posted by peacay at 9:44 AM on November 27, 2006


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