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What Happens If an Astronaut Dies in Space?

Humanosity says…Despite the dangers and a number of deaths getting to and from space no-one has died in space. Recent news of the first criminal offence that took place in space made us wonder what would happen in astronaut dies in space? This article explores the issue….

In August of 2019, the bitter divorce of astronaut Anne McClain led to claims that she had accessed her estranged partner’s bank account. whilst bitter divorces are nothing new, what made this unique was that it seems the astronaut accessed the bank whilst she was on the International Space Station. Although NASA has declined to comment many are calling this the first crime ever committed in space.

Death in Space

There have been several tragedies that have resulted in the deaths of astronauts. Soyuz 1’s parachute failed to deploy on its return to earth killing the astronaut on board. The explosion of space shuttle Challenger on launch killed all seven astronauts on board as did the disintegration of the shuttle Columbia on re-entry. The only deaths that have occurred in space itself were the deaths of three cosmonauts onboard Soyuz 11 when an air vent ripped open during descent.

In all these disasters the bodies were recovered on earth. However what would happen if an astronaut on the ISS were to die of a heart attack or be killed in an accident. What effects would microgravity have? What would the protocols be? Should the body bet returned to earth or not?

All space programmes have had to contemplate this possibility and develop protocols in case the worst happens. However, none are willing to discuss what they would do.

What to Do With The Body?

If an astronaut were to die on the ISS then the issue of decomposition would become a factor. Currently, waste produced by the station’s inhabitants is stored in the coldest part of the structure. This stops or slows down the rotting process. Although not exactly good PR it makes logical sense to store the body there until it could be put on a craft taking live astronauts back to earth.

Should the decision be not to return the body to earth then the options are to have a space burial, much like burial at sea. Depending on the trajectory chosen the body could end up being cremated on re-entry to earth’s atmosphere or even the sun. However she the body be set adrift in space then there’s a danger that it could crash into another planet in our or even another solar system. In that case, there would be a danger that the bacteria and fungus on the body could contaminate that planet and there are strict rules around this.

Trips to Mars

Apparently back in 2005, NASA worked with a Swedish company called Promessa that provides ecologically friendly burials. They designed a prototype for a system called Body Back that could be used on long-duration missions, like to Mars.

In this system, the corpse would be put in a Goretex bag and then exposed to the deep freeze of space. Then the bag would be vibrated by a robotic arm and this would lead to the body disintegrating into chunks which then could be dehydrated. The end result would be approximately 30kgs of freeze-dried powder which could be easily stored until the mission returns to earth.

To put all of this in context just think about the situation on Mt Everest. When climbers die in the death zone it is so hard to get the body down that they are left where they fell. Each year climbers often have to clamber over the frozen remains of those who died. Will space be the same?

Sources: Space Safety Magazine, Space.com, www.popularmechanics.com

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