A space pod containing an astronaut drifts out to space and cannot be rescued. The space pod contains no insects, and the only bacteria present are those originally brought in by the astronaut. There is plenty of oxygen (assume 20%) and the interior is heated in the long term to 20 degrees C by a radioisotope heater.

The astronaut eventually dies through lack of food or water. His body is found many years later. What will the rescuers find? A body or a skeleton?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What's the humidity of the air? In dry air you'd get a mummy, like in the desert or in some church crypts. $\endgroup$ – Stephan Matthiesen Feb 19 at 13:32

First I assume many years equals 10 years or more, although the presence of oxygen may drastically speed this up or it may interfere it is hard to say. Nobody was tried to figure out how something will rot in sealed but consciously oxygenated container since is basically does not exist without a custom built chamber.

Your main factor is humidity that is whether the pod has humidity control, if it keeps a human comfortable humidity you will have a skeletal mummy since skin and hair will survive but much of the body will desiccate. If you just treat it like a sealed container the body fluids breaking down will ramp up the humidity and you will just a have a pile of bones and rather disgusting soup. A sealed container is one way to rot down an animal carcass to get bones, it is called maceration and something that has been well studied. I have done it many times and a few years is more than enough to reduce a carcass down to a skeleton. Note depending on how long you wait even the bone may be damaged or destroyed although the restricted biota may prevent the final stages of this leaving you with extremely fragile skeleton remains.

I must emphasis the smell will be disgusting, as in even seasoned investigators will be tossing their cookies if they smell it. Almost nothing can describe the disgust of the smell of a human body rotting in a sealed container. Our brains have evolved to find human rotting flesh as disgusting as possible.

for additional comparison a a paper comparing decomposition of several pig carcasses sealed in concrete.

Source link addresses https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2738563/



  • $\begingroup$ What breaks the body down in a sealed container? Is this purely microbiological? $\endgroup$ – user8654 Feb 19 at 17:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ yes you are covered in microbes as is your gut and many are more than happy to breaks you down if given access to your juicy bits. You also have a lot of microbes trapped in your clothing (this can actually be worse for astronauts). cell for cell you have about as many microbes as normal human cells. Mythbusters does a rather telling experiment using a pig carcass sealed in concrete and a sealed car which might interest you. . $\endgroup$ – John Feb 19 at 17:20
  • $\begingroup$ Mythbusters [mythbusters.fandom.com/wiki/Stinky_Car_(Episode)] certainly demonstrated that fresh pig corpses placed in a car sealed with pressure-sensitive tape for two months decomposed - I could find nothing about bodies encased in concrete. However, Mythbusters found the carcases were covered in maggots, so it seems flies still managed to penetrate the car and lay eggs. They would find that harder to do in space. I really want to know whether bodies will decompose in the absence of insects through the action of microbes naturally contained on or within the astronaught's body. $\endgroup$ – user8654 Feb 20 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ listed as Buried in Concrete MiniMyth $\endgroup$ – John Feb 20 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ Presumably this process must end some time when all the chemical energy has been used up and all organic compounds basically have been converted to carbondioxide. Any idea how long this might take? Years, decades, millennia? $\endgroup$ – Stephan Matthiesen Feb 28 at 12:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.