A decade ago, astronomers discovered that the Milky Way contains raspberry-infused alcohol — well…kind of. It’s fun to imagine what space tastes like, but that’s not the point. Ultimately, astronomers study space to find out the history of the universe. So, by speculating about the flavors of the universe, we’re also telling our origin story.
The universe may seem full of dark, empty spaces, but there is actually a bunch of dust muddled throughout our galaxy.
“We are all made of stardust,” says Tito Beveridge (yes, that’s his real name). It turns out that before he founded Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Tito was a geophysicist. He’s among many scientists who are fascinated by space dust.
At the end of a star’s life, bits of stardust spill into the universe. The most dramatic stars collapse and create a giant explosion called a supernova, which adds even more flavor to the cosmic cocktail. These specks of dust contain elements such as carbon, oxygen, and iron — the building blocks for new stars, planets, and people, according to NASA.
The vastness of space can be too much to comprehend, and astrophysics is very abstract. To put our ever-expanding universe into context, we want to know what space feels like, what it smells like, and how it tastes. The few lucky people who have firsthand experience with space travel have said it smells like burnt steak, gunpowder, or a burnt almond cookie. So far, nobody has tasted space dust yet.
Instead of sipping on stardust, astronomers use a process called spectroscopy to study celestial objects. Spectroscopy works like the crystal prism that you might hang in a window to make rainbows out of sunlight.
Allison Strom, an astronomer at Carnegie Observatories, explains that light travels at a different speed in the prism than it does in a vacuum, so different wavelengths of light (a.k.a. colors) bend at different angles. The prism scatters white sunlight as a continuous rainbow of colors, but elements and molecules emit light at discrete wavelengths.
“We can tell if a given element or molecule is present by looking for that spectroscopic fingerprint,” Strom says.
Scientists used spectroscopy to examine Sagittarius B2, a giant dust cloud at the center of the Milky Way. They found out that the cloud is mostly made of alcohol, but not the kind that you’d enjoy in an adult beverage. It’s a blend of methanol, ethanol, and other lethal garnishes. In 2009, astronomers at the IRAM telescope in Spain discovered that the dust cloud contains ethyl formate, a delicious organic molecule that smells like booze and is tastes like raspberries. It wouldn’t go down like a smooth sip of vodka, but at least it would taste good.
It’s nice to think that space might be hospitable and tasty, but we wouldn’t recommend trying a shot of space dust. For now, you can impress your friends by pairing your new space knowledge with a Sagittarius B2 cocktail that can be enjoyed here on Earth.