Graveyard Shift

Realistically, What Happens To A Dead Body In Space?  

Erin Wisti
87.3k views 10 items

What happens to your body if you expire in space? That's actually a complicated question and the answer depends on a variety of factors. From burning up into the atmosphere to floating frozen indefinitely, there are a lot of possibilities for deceased bodies in space. Space missions are always inherently risky, astronauts go on a trip with the knowledge they may not return. The protocol of what to do if an astronaut perishes on a mission is unclear, but NASA has some tentative plans in place for a variety of scenarios. 

Facts about non-living bodies in space are mostly hypothetical. But as long term missions to Mars and other far away planets are in the works, people are seriously considering what happens to a corpse in space. As we continue to venture into the final frontier, scientists will need to find ethical means to dispose of a body with dignity if an astronaut perishes on the mission. 

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Photo: NASA/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
NASA Is Working On A Plan To Freeze Dry And Dissolve Deceased Astronauts

As NASA scientists plan long term space trips, they must make a plan to deal with corpses in the event an astronaut perishes on a mission. In one proposed plan, the bodies of deceased astronauts would immediately be placed into a large bag, similar to a sarcophagus.

After quickly performing funeral rites, the bag containing the body would be placed in the ship's airlock. This would expose the corpse to outer space, allowing the low temperatures to freeze dry the body.

In a morbid twist, a robotic arm would shake the bag after the body freezes. This would cause the cadaver to slowly dissolve into powder. Then, the bag containing the remaining powder would fold up into a neat square that would be given to the family members of the deceased upon the ship's return to Earth. 

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Astronauts Who Expire On Mars Could End Up Being Buried There

Richard Nixon actually had two speeches ready for the Apollo 11 mission. In the event the crew perished on their journey, Nixon would have read a speech in which he said, "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace."

Officials knew there was a chance Apollo astronauts would end up stranded indefinitely on the moon, possibly remaining in communication with ground control while slowly starving.

As missions to Mars are being planned, what would the protocol be today for a similar scenario? There is no clear plan for what to do if an astronaut or group of astronauts perished on another planet. However, it would be difficult to safely store a corpse on board a spaceship without risking contamination and every extra pound adds risk to the mission. Therefore, deceased crew members may be buried on Mars and left there to rest. 

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If A Body Freezes In Space, It Could Be Preserved Indefinitely

If you were thrown into space without wearing a spacesuit, your body could theoretically be preserved for quite some time. Your body would need to be near a somewhat warm object that could take on your body's heat, such as a spacecraft. This would allow the body to freeze solid very quickly.

It's unclear how long decomposition would take in this scenario. If your body did not encounter a very hot object that would incinerate it, such as a star, it could theoretically remain preserved indefinitely.

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A Spacesuit Could Cause A Body To Decompose In Space

If you expired in space while wearing a space suit, your body would actually decompose quicker than if it was exposed. The suit would protect you from elements of space that could freeze, dry out, or incinerate your corpse. This would only occur if you were close to a heat source, however, as bacteria in the spacesuit and within your body would start breaking down your body soon after death.

With no heat, your body could freeze quickly and leave your corpse preserved indefinitely inside the suit.