View Full Version : Deterioration of an Abandoned Spacecraft

04-03-2016, 07:19 PM
My Google-fu has so far yielded few insights on this topic. I'm trying to figure out what kind of shape the inside of a spaceship would be in after several hundred years (let's say five-hundred) of vacancy. The ship's systems are still functional, let's assume thanks to some powerful science-fiction-y technology, and the area in question is climate-controlled and moisture-controlled, but there is no artificial gravity or oxygen present. Would everything still look brand-new due to the absence of mold/rust, etc. or would there be some shabbiness or noticeable deterioration on the surfaces within? Anyone who knows more about space than I do (which is not much) would be a big help!

Chris P
04-03-2016, 07:31 PM
I think that as long as the exterior remains intact it will remain pretty much as it was left. Whatever moisture is on it after that time will have been whatever was left on it. However, tiny bits of space junk and micro-meteors (I think they're called) will continue to pelt the outside of the spacecraft and eventually wear away the integrity. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum has a returned bit of the Hubble on display, and after only ten or so years the surface was pock marked with drill holes where they removed the embedded bits of space debris to study them.

I wouldn't be surprised if 500 years is plenty of time for heat sheilding or other protective covering (not to mention solar panels) to be irreparably compromised.

04-03-2016, 07:53 PM
Well, the last spaceship with alien technology that had been sitting for half a millennia that I was in...

Seriously, there is no basis in current technology to give you an answer. What do you need for your story?


Dennis E. Taylor
04-03-2016, 08:39 PM
The problem is volatiles. Some types of plastics, some adhesives, possibly other materials will continue to slowly boil off volatiles, which are basically constituent chemicals that gradually evaporate. This will change the chemical makeup of the material, possibly making it brittle, possibly making it disintegrate. Laminated materials, structures that are held together with adhesives, will probably come apart. Then the volatiles in the atmosphere may react with other materials, such as metals or organics like wood.

If nothing else, the inherent humidity in the atmosphere will gradually corrode some metals, be absorbed by things like wood and cause them to crack, provide a growing medium for molds, etc.

You can probably pick your consequences and make them plausible, but IMO "unchanged" is unlikely.

King Neptune
04-03-2016, 09:30 PM
Different materials would endure that differently. Your description is not completely clear. Is the space ship in a parking orbit around something, or was it parked on an asteroid or something? Has the interior been evacuated and filled with an inert gas or maybe nitrogen or an other gas?

If it was filled with nitrogen, then nitrogen would have reacted with many of the chemicals in plastics; although it wouldn't have corroded metals. As someone else mentioned, volatiles would have leaked from plastics, and that might cause brittleness or destruction. Composites (plastics, etc.) would tend to breakdown, and polymers would be dissolving into monomers. Electrical insulation would be one thing that would break down, and some of the materials that go into computers would also tend to breakdown, so I would doubt that the controls for any propulsion system would work.

If it were open to the vacuum of space, then all sort of things would have evaporated.

04-03-2016, 09:41 PM
In the absence of maintenance, things tend to go to equilibrium with their surroundings, which in the case of space is a cold vacuum. Not that that would have a huge effect on the technology on board, but it might wreak havoc on some, for example blowing out sealed containers of gas, or cracking some pipes that contained liquids that froze.

Even if the ship's life support technology were functioning, it's likely a cold vacuum would result after so long a time, due to damage to the hull from micrometeorites and such.

And of course you won't find any mold in a frozen vacuum.

04-03-2016, 10:12 PM
If nothing else, the inherent humidity in the atmosphere will gradually corrode some metals, be absorbed by things like wood and cause them to crack, provide a growing medium for molds, etc..

Not in the absence of oxygen, which was stipulated in the OP.


04-03-2016, 10:16 PM
Wow, great insights so far everyone! For the sake of clarity within the context of the story, this is a large deep space exploration vessel in which only a small portion of the ship (the crew's living quarters) is equipped with fully functional life support systems, for obvious reasons such as power conservation.

The story premise is that our protagonist wakes up from cryonic sleep to find that the other members of his crew, who went to sleep when he did, are gone. There's a point at which he decides to suit up and go through the airlock to search the remainder of the ship, and that's where my question comes from. Given that this is fiction, I know everything won't be realistic in terms of current science (the story is more about how he deals psychologically with being alone, and how he pieces together what happened to his crew), but I still want to be somewhat accurate in terms of the kinds of things he'll find when he ventures past the airlock.

King Neptune
04-03-2016, 10:49 PM
Metal would be in good shape, unless tubing or tanks cracked when contents froze, but that depends on what was in them. Metal valves and fittings probably would have vacuum welded together. Composites, plastics, etc. will have deteriorated, but to what degree would vary. Petroleum based polymers would have partly broken down. When your character walks into the mess of broken stuff all around, he probably will want to turn around and go back to sleep.

If the ship uses chemical rockets, then they probably will not work due to the vacuum welding or due to leakage of fuel. .

Dennis E. Taylor
04-03-2016, 11:08 PM
If cryosleep is involved, then presumably the ship is designed for long voyages. Depending on how hand-wavey you want to get, the builders could have designed the ship using only materials that don't produce volatiles, only metals that don't corrode, no organic structural or trim materials, no adhesives, graphite lubrication (or similar) to prevent vacuum welding, multiple redundant systems, and maybe even automated maintenance systems.

04-04-2016, 01:52 AM
I feel like that would most likely be the case (the ship would've been designed for long voyages). Some misdirection is probably necessary to make the plot feasible, in that it's the sort of narrative that 'unravels' over time - he finds out what happened little by little. I think what I'm going to do, based on all your very helpful answers, is assume the ship is durable, but it's been so long that some of the adverse effects you all mentioned are starting to happen. As a result, the ship's various systems are in the early stages of failure and decay. If I can pull it off, it should make for a decent disaster/survival story. Whether it's believable or not, well... that's where the hand-waving comes in.

King Neptune
04-04-2016, 03:08 AM
An automated maintenance system would be a good idea. Just putting everything through a run cycle every few years would go a long way toward keeping it functional.

04-04-2016, 03:21 AM
You could have some fun with some of the failures if you wanted, too.

Improperly written computer code would be interesting, since it's possible the calendar system would have crossed a millennia.

Depending on how long the rest of teh crew was awake before disappearing, did they use any systems, like sewage, or food? It basically sounds like the rest of the crew was awake before they were supposed to be, so maybe systems are being used (or not used) in a manner the designers didn't expect.

04-04-2016, 09:27 AM
It's useful to consider what kinds of metal are most likely to be used in a space ship. Iron/steel, very unlikely. Too heavy, prone to corrosion. How many airplanes are made out of steel? Aluminum, titanium, vanadium alloys would be most likely. Abundant, light, strong, corrosion-resistant. But even more, a lot of high-tech space ship construction is likely to be some form of exotic material of artificial manufacture, carbon-fiber, grapheme, a vast array of plastic-related stuff. And you're writing SF, so you can make some of this kind of thing up.


04-05-2016, 05:13 PM
Your major issues about condition will be from external conditions. Did it get hit by meteorites or an asteroid, for example? Was it carrying anything dangerous, like dinosaurs? No, skip that, Dr. Who fans will hate you. Maybe a visit by alien life forms?

If it's just psychology, create the environment you need. Cold, dark, empty and alone is a great psychological setting to begin with. Give him a damaged drive system and a course that takes him into a black hole in 17 months if you want.