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Top 5 unexpected objects in space

What do you think is the most unexpected object in space?

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In 1957, Sputnik was launched, marking the begining of the era of space exploration. It was the first time humans put an object in orbit around the Earth. Since that date, we have sent many satellites, probes, capsules, and space stations into space. And we also sent a few objects that are more… unexpected.

  1. A spatula

Space agencies are constantly surveilling several thousand objects in orbit around the Earth. This is done to avoid collisions between satellites, and to prevent satellites from being destroyed by debris. In 2005, and astronaut was doing maintenance on the outside of the space station. As he was working, he “dropped” one of his tools, a kind of spatula. The spatula floated away, never to be retrieved. Since, the spatula has been dubbed “Spatsat” – for “spatula satellite” and was added to space agencies’ databases of satellites to be surveilled until it burned up by falling through the atmosphere.

  1. An expresso machine

In micro-gravity, a lot of things that seem easy to us become a lot more difficult. Getting water to pass through pipes is more complicated: you’re never quite sure when the water will reach the other end. Heating liquids is complicated: if you try to heat water the way you would on Earth with heating surface, then the water will boil on one side and stay cold on the other. Drinking in a cup is complicated: on Earth, gravity makes the content of a cup fall into your mouth (or the floor?) when you tilt the cup, but if you try to do the same in micro-gravity, the liquid will just stay in the cup.

When the Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti went to the ISS in 2014, an expresso machine was specifically designed and sent into the ISS for her. A special cup was also designed so that she wouldn’t have to drink her fresh expresso through a straw (before 2014, astronauts could only drink instant coffee with a straw from a pouch). This special cup has a super funky shape and uses capillarity rather than gravity to make the liquid it contains go from the cup to the astronaut’s mouth.

  1. A firearm and its ammo

The third unexpected object in this list is a TP-82 firearm. When astronauts return to Earth, they land in isolated places like the ocean, or Siberia. And sometimes, they have to wait a long, long time before being rescued. Even more so when a technical issue makes them land far away from the planned landing site. In fact, astronaut training includes survival courses for them to know what to do if they have to wait several days in the wilderness with limited supplies.

During one mission, there was a computer malfunction in the guidance system during landing. The cosmonauts ended up in the middle of the forest and while they were waiting to be rescued, they thought they saw a pack of wolves in the distance. Since this incident, cosmonauts learn how to use a firearm that they take with them into space so that they have it with them when they land back on Earth.

  1. A rock from Mars

You might wonder why a martian rock is part of this list, but let me explain. Every now and then, a huge asteroid lands on the planet Mars. This projects a bunch of smaller rocks into the air. Some of these rocks are projected so violently that they escape Mars’ gravity and end up floating in interplanetary space. A fraction of them cross the Earth’s path, go through the Earth’s atmosphere without completely burning up, and finally get picked up by humans.

This sequence of events might seem unlikely, yet we have already found several hundreds of meteorites that we know for a fact come from Mars.

A small piece of one of these meteorites was given to Thomas Pesquet for him to take along to the ISS in 2016. This piece of a meteorite did a round trip between the Earth and the ISS, then was integrated into the calibration target of the SuperCam instrument on the Perseverance rover. So this martian rock was sent back to Mars.

  1. A corned beef sandwich

During the first space missions, what was fed to astronauts was rather un-appetizing: cheese cube wrapped in gelatin, powdered orange juice, dehydrated hotdogs,…

During Gemini 3, to avoid NASA mandated menu, John Young his a corned-beef sandwich in his jacket. Once he was in space, he took it out to try to eat it. But he rapidly noticed that the sandwich was making a lot of crumbs. And crumbs can be dangerous if they get stuck behind a control pannel or worse, in an astronaut’s airways.

In the end, Young didn’t even get to eat his sandwich.

You can listen to this story in French here.

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PhD, astrophysicist. I play with keyboards and telescopes whenever I can.