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How comets make better perfume

Scientists are adapting technology used in the Rosetta space mission to help you smell nice

On May 7last year, 258 million miles out in space, a tiny probe fired its thrusters and began to sneak up behind a comet. As it closed in, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft began ‘sniffing’ the miniature world – sampling the tiny particles drifting in its wake. When the data arrived back on earth, scientists were surprised by what they discovered. The comet reeked. Badly. Like, worse than ‘homeless dude on a bus on a summer day and the windows are shut’ bad.

As Kathrin Altwegg, a researcher on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, explained rather more politely: “The smell is quite strong, with the odour of rotten eggs (hydrogen sulphide), horse stable (ammonia), and the pungent, suffocating odour of formaldehyde. This is mixed with the faint, bitter, almond-like aroma of hydrogen cyanide. Add some whiff of alcohol (methanol) to this mixture, paired with the vinegar-like aroma of sulphur dioxide and a hint of the sweet aromatic scent of carbon disulphide, and you arrive at the ‘perfume’ of our comet.”

“Scientists were surprised by what they discovered. The comet reeked. Badly”

The comet in question is 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, a two-and-a-half-mile wide chunk of rock, ice and dust that’s rapidly approaching the sun. Beyond its BO problem, scientists discovered that 67P is rich in organic molecules – the very building blocks of life. But how do they know? Does stuff even ‘smell’ in space?

“Rosetta is equipped with three devices called mass spectrometers,” explains Dr Geraint Morgan, a researcher at the Open University who works on ways of using space technology back here on earth. “If you watch CSI or any of those forensic shows you’ll usually see a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer – which is basically two big boxes. You put a complex mixture in the front end and the first box separates the compounds, and then the second box tells you what those compounds are. What we built for the mission is a shoebox-size, miniaturised version of that – we effectively sent a lab to a comet.”

In the depths of space, the probe’s Ptolemy instrument detected molecules drifting in comet’s 67P tail – or ‘coma’. Later, riding onboard a small lander called Philae which descended to touch down on the surface, it got a close-up whiff of the comet. Now, back on earth, the exact same technology is about to go to work in the world of fragrance. 

“This is a very disruptive technology for the fragrance industry” – Dr Geraint Morgan

Givaudan, the world’s largest flavouring and fragrance company, has acquired a ‘tissue box sized’ cousin of the Ptolemy instrument developed for the mission by the Open University. It will be used to help analyse and assess the ‘complex atmospheres’ that form the basis of many of the world’s leading perfume brands. Though the company and their competitors are extremely secretive about who uses their scents, it’s believed Givaudan products are used to create fragrances by Dior, Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, Armani, Calvin Klein and Jean Paul Gaultier.

“This is a very disruptive technology for their industry, so we have a strong clause in our contract saying we can’t talk about it,” explains Dr Morgan. “When they formulate their perfumes, it’s obviously a complex mixture and they use human sniffers to give feedback. We’re giving them a robotic version to test their formulation and refine things before it goes to the human panel.”

Beyond perfume, Dr Morgan and his team are working on all kinds of other uses for the technology – from monitoring the air inside submarines to detecting bedbugs in hotels. As he concludes with a challenge we kind of feel like taking him up on: “You name it, we’ll sniff it.”

Chris Hatherill is founder of creative science agency super/collider.