What does space smell like?

Space science communication often emphasizes the visual – photographs, videos, and paintings. Much more rarely is space science communicated via the perspective of smell. Yes, Mars is known as the Red Planet, but what does it smell like? Sure, Saturn’s rings are visually stunning, but what effect do they have on the nostrils? We spoke to Marina Barcenilla, a perfumer and scientist who combines her unique combination of interests to put on events exposing audiences to the smells of space. The vehicle by which she holds these events is AromAtom. She tells us about her inspiration, her approach, and her plans. 

Can you explain more about how you combined your interests in space and perfume?

While studying for my degree in Planetary Science with Astronomy at Birkbeck, University of London, I became interested in the way we communicate science. As a formerly science-phobic creative (I’m a perfumer), I realized that the formal talk and slides combination favored by academia is not necessarily the best way to communicate with the public. It’s certainly not the most accessible or fun! With AromAtom, my aim is to engage with non-scientific audiences, ignite their curiosity, encourage them to delve deeper into science, and help them feel involved and interested in our work. I use bizarre space smells to engage the imagination and prompt participants to ask questions and discuss the answers, making events inclusive and interactive. Without noticing, they’re learning about the formation of the Solar System and its planets, moons, comets, and asteroids. Anybody can participate regardless of age, education, background, or disability. AromAtom is for everyone.

How do you even go about figuring out what a planet or space object smells like?

As a perfumer, I have spent two decades creating all sorts of smells usually inspired by a particular scent, an idea, a memory, or an abstract concept. With AromAtom the process of creating the hypothetical smells of space was completely different. I had scientific data to guide me. The smells of specific planets, moons, and galaxies are based on data collected by space missions. The data describes the composition of Martian regolith, the atmospheres of gas giants, the plumes of Enceladus, and the molecules detected within gas and dust clouds. Other odors are based on the accounts of Apollo astronauts like Gene Cernan’s and Harrison Schmitt’s descriptions of the smell of moondust, or on descriptions of the smell of space provided by ISS astronauts like Tim Peake and Don Pettit. I also draw inspiration from the geophysical processes that shape planetary bodies such as the smell of volcanic gases. 

What are you planning to do next?

With the current pandemic I’m not able to organize any public or school events, but I have a couple of STEAM projects on the pipeline that I’m not at liberty to discuss at the moment. I would love to work with organizations interested in sensory approaches to planetarium shows, though, and I have created artistic versions of several space-smells. When I launched the project in 2017, I created a fragrance called “Out of this World” which uses several space smells to represent an olfactory journey through space. I also created other fragrances which I’m slowly releasing into the world – the Earth, the Moon, and Mars will hopefully be making an appearance before Christmas.