Space exploration is an activity that involves risks that can endanger the lives of astronauts. If one of them dies, the consequences would be dire for both the rest of the crew and their relatives on Earth.
Death in space is a subject that has troubled science, space agencies and, of course, the astronauts themselves. But it should be noted that the cosmos is a hostile environment for lifesince there is no air, there is radiation, extreme temperatures and gravity.
All these factors can negatively affect the health of cosmonauts, both in the short and long term. For example, in the short term, exposure to the vacuum of space can cause death by suffocationdecompression or freezing.
While in the long term, exposure to cosmic radiation can cause death from cancer or degenerative diseases.
However, what happens to the body when it dies in space? The answer to this question depends on the circumstances of the death, as well as the place where it occurs. If someone dies inside a spaceship or space station, the body will go through the same stages as on Earth.
That is, it will face stiffness (rigor mortis), coloring (livor mortis), cooling (algor mortis), putrefaction and skeletonization. However, these processes can be affected by factors such as temperature, humidity, ventilation and the presence of microorganisms.
On the other hand, if an astronaut dies outside a ship, the body will automatically go through a different cycle. If it is exposed to the sun, it will heat up and dry out quickly, causing slower rotting. But if it is in the shade, it will freeze, which will also prevent its natural decomposition.
What is the protocol to follow if someone dies in space?
At the moment, there is no established international protocol for dealing with space corpses. Each space agency has its own rules and procedures in this regard.
NASA has a plan called the Deceased Personnel Recovery Procedure (PRP), which sets out the actions to follow in case someone dies during a mission. According to Emmanuel Urquieta Ordóñez, from the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, he affirms that there are several actions to follow.
In this case, after the death of an astronaut, the family and NASA personnel are notified. Subsequently, the body must be preserved in a special sealed and refrigerated container, since the goal is to return the body to Earth as soon as possible.
Once the body is received on Earth, an autopsy and toxicology analysis must be performed, and ultimately it is released to the family for funeral and burial.
It should be noted that the above plan only applies to low-Earth orbit missions, such as those to the International Space Station (ISS). If death occurred during a mission to the Moon, such as those of the Artemis program or those of Mars, the space agencies still do not have a defined plan.
But according to Ordóñez, some of the options that arise is to preserve the body in a specialized bag and wait until the mission is over. The crew would temporarily place it in a space zone inside the spacecraft until there is a chance to return, but it could be months of waiting.
Death in space would be more common in the future
Death in space could become more common in the future for a number of reasons. One is that space exploration is expanding and diversifying. There are more and more private companies and countries interested in sending people into space, either for commercial or tourist reasons.
This implies that there will be more missions, more vehicles, more destinations and more crews involved. Also, future missions will have more ambitious goals, such as establishing permanent bases on the Moon or sending humans to Mars, so these missions will require longer and farther travel.
It is important to note that the death of someone in outer space raises more questions than just what to do with the lifeless body.. The psychology of the crew will play a fundamental role, as well as emotional support and the impact on families, all together will be crucial factors.