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The Space Funerals of the Near-Future Sound Pretty Beautiful

This research team wants to freeze astronaut corpses, shake them into dust and bring them back to Earth.

Monica Heisey

Monica Heisey

A sketch of what a space funeral might look like (All images courtesy of Karin Tjerrild Lund and Mikael Ploustrup)

Last week, a workshop hosted by the imaginatively named Explore Mars Inc declared some exciting stuff about the exploration of Mars. The group of experts announced that, if Obama restores the space agency's budget to pre-sequestration levels, a NASA-led manned mission to the Red Planet would be possible by the 2030s.

It's unknown if and when that budget could be reinstated, but, in the meantime, there are a few private companies also attempting to fund trips to Mars. For example, Mars One – a nonprofit from the Netherlands – is hoping to leave a bunch of people there for the rest of the lives (in an attempt to slowly colonise the planet, not as a very cruel piece of Dutch horseplay) by the year 2022.

So basically, with a bunch of money and 15 or so years, there could be people visiting or living on Mars. Which you imagine would be a pretty big deal for all of us living here on Earth.

However, a never-before-attempted mission to another planet brings with it many hazards, and unlike the Mars One plan, NASA’s goal is for its astronauts to return to Earth. But what happens if not all of them make it? Travel to or from Mars takes around seven months, and a landed mission would remain on the surface of the planet for some time, resulting in a potential mission time of two years or more.

So, in considering the multitude of things that could go wrong on a 40 million-mile-long trip, the issue of mortality inevitably arose. What happens when someone dies in deep space?

A mock-up of how deceased bodies would be stored outside a space station

The most practical answer would be to just propel the deceased out of the airlock – a sort of burial-at-sea, but with less water and presumably way more conspiracy theories about aliens or the disposal of sensitive assassination victims or whatever. But according to "space debris mitigation guidelines" set out by the UN, it’s actually forbidden to dump things into the cosmos whenever you feel like it. Because a body floating freely in space with nothing to track it could potentially collide with a satellite or another ship, effectively turning it into a very messy flight hazard.

To deal with this and other death-related concerns facing a prospective Mars mission, NASA set up a number of research groups. Among them is one led by Susanne Wiigh-Masak and Peter Masak, the Swedish ecologists behind the eco-friendly body disposal company Promessa. Susanne and Peter, in conjunction with NASA and a group of science and design students from Sweden and Denmark, looked into adapting their "promession" process for space, and the results are pretty amazing.

First, some background: promession is a process similar to cryomation, in that it freezes the corpse with liquid nitrogen until brittle (this occurs at around -200C), but then vibrates the remains until they’re reduced to powder. Water, mercury and other metals are removed from the powder and the dried remains are kept or used as compost for a memorial tree or plant. At the moment, the Masaks’ proposed "promatorium" is not operational; Wiigh-Masek told me over the phone that the equipment required was being shipped to the Promessa factory, where testing is scheduled to take place within the next ten months.

While the process and company is somewhat of a controversial topic – multiple investors have pulled support from Promessa based on production delays and a lack of evidence on the Masaks’ part that what they propose is, in fact, feasible – the proposal for NASA and the questions raised by it are fascinating.

What are the most important parts of the death ritual? If a space-death is not a result of natural causes, whose jurisdiction is the inquiry? Millions of miles away from Earth, how would blame be assigned and justice enacted? How can one ensure the safe return of a dead body to Earth if it has to remain on board in the closed environment of a spaceship without contaminating other humans or disrupting the mission by bumming everyone out who has to look at it the whole time? How would the population of Earth respond to a funeral in space?

A sketch of the "Body Back" 

For a start, things need to move quickly. Decomposition begins as soon the body dies, so it has to be disposed of within 24 hours to avoid contaminating the ship’s environment and infecting the crew. To deal with that, the research team created a GoreTex bag – a "Body Back" – which is inflated into a sarcophagus-like shape where the body, dressed in NASA’s indoor spacesuit, would be placed. Any funereal rites are done at this time, in a location where Earth can be contacted (on a 20-minute delay). As the presentation notes:

"A funeral in space would be an unprecedented event, which might well involve the involvement of government figures, media and the public at large […] Speeches from the home nation, family members and the captain may be followed by last goodbyes from crew members, writing on the Body Back, celebrations, songs and so forth. It will be possible to transfer data to the Body Back from Earth, delivering any final messages to the decedent that his or her family or friends may wish to deliver."

Another consideration is storage. Wiigh-Masak said, "Everything on the ship has to be very minimal and carefully weighed and stored. There's not a lot of extra room, so if you have a full-sized deceased body, where are you going to keep it?" A ship with five crew members would contain four Body Backs. As Wiigh-Masak noted, grimly, if pragmatically, "Well, the fifth one couldn’t fill itself."

After the funeral, the Body Back is placed in the air lock, where the temperature of space (about -270C) freezes the body solid. A robotic arm called a "robonaut" then vibrates the cloth coffin for 15 minutes, reducing the body to small pieces. Water is evaporated from the remains through a vent in the bag. "In this way," Wiigh-Masak explained, "the astronauts – who often say that, if they die up there, they'd like to stay in space – also get their wish, and the ship does not carry any extra weight."

A sketch of the robotic arm that would shake an astronaut's frozen remains into a powder

Now containing about 25kg of dry, white powder, the Body Back eventually folds itself up into an innocuous square shape "that will not reveal that there is a corpus inside", and remains outside the space craft until re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, when it's brought on board to prevent it from being incinerated. Remains are then returned to the deceased’s family.

This presentation and the group’s findings are all very, very preliminary. Said Wiigh-Masak: "With this project, we were really just looking at the preconditions they know exist in space and trying to come up with some options. I know NASA will keep looking into it until 2030, so there is time. I’m just optimistic that we could have contributed a solution, and when it's going to be a reality then we'll have to be in closer contact to see how the application is going to be handled and done in the correct way."

But while the research team don't want to make any concrete assertions that the frozen corpses of future astronauts are going to be jiggled into dust by a robotic arm, Wiigh-Masak told me: "Promession is one of the only options out there for NASA to look at right now."

Follow Monica on Twitter: @monicaheisey

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