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What would extended periods on Mars do to musical instruments? I'm assuming these instruments would be in habitats similar to ISS or similar, but how might they degrade?

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  • $\begingroup$ FWIW, there is (or at least was) an acoustic guitar aboard the ISS, famously seen and briefly played in Chris Hadfield's "Space Oddity" video. I'm not sure when that guitar was brought up there, or if it's still there, or what condition it's in, but it's probably doing alright. A violin is similar enough to a guitar that I imagine it would fare similarly well. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ I watched a video with Hadfield where he said that it was more difficult to play "space guitar" (his excellent words, not mine) because zero gravity makes the instrument move around and he didn't have the natural weight helping him out when he moved between frets. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ There's often 'electric' versions that can be made off synthetic materials, like electric violins and bagpipes. There might be 'different' failure modes, but in theory one could design an instrument for long term use outside earth or ideal earth-like conditions $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman Many instruments are shown on the ISS here space.stackexchange.com/q/29913/6944 $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ A violin in a habitat with fairly constant atmosphere pressure, humidity and temperature should degrade not faster than on Earth in a museum. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 22:07

2 Answers 2

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Generally the first question is: What causes instruments to degrade over time here on Earth?

Multiple factors play into it:

  • Temperature and humidity variations: Temperature change causes materials to expand and contract, so extended periods of extreme temperature cycles can work materials apart like the glue, welds, or solder joints holding together the instrument. Similarly, humidity can enter the wood of a wooden instrument and can cause it to expand, also leading to mechanical stresses.

  • Corrosion: Materials interact with the oxygen in the atmosphere and this can cause chemical reactions to occur in the materials. In metals, this is usually called corrosion or rust, but even organic materials can develop a patina or discoloration when exposed to the atmosphere for a long time and not maintained regularly.

  • Gravity and storage direction: Generally, supportive hard cases for instruments are recommended when storing them long term. This is because if they are just lying around--unsupported--some materials can slowly flex or warp on long time scales

  • Water damage: This one is a bit obvious, but ties into "humidity" and corrosion. An instrument that was submerged in water or has had liquid water drip onto it suffers from all sorts of problems.

  • Life: Mold and insects are also a danger to instruments, particularly the more edible ones like string instruments which are often composed of organic material.

Now, how would these factors change in a space habitat on Mars (or habitat generally)?

  • Climate Control: Controlling the air temperature and humidity is vital to the survival and health of the people inside the habitat. Unless something has gone seriously wrong, the inside temperature of a habitat should not swing to any extremes that would cause undue thermal stress on the instrument (On Earth, you wouldn't want to store an instrument in an attic that gets very hot in the summer and cold in the winter)

  • Corrosion: If anything, less of an issue in a habitat than on Earth. Humidity can be tightly controlled and things that cause undue corrosion here on Earth like salt-laden ocean air would not be a factor in a habitat.

  • Gravity: Due to the lower gravity and stresses of the instrument's own mass being reduced, instruments would probably actually store better than on Earth.

  • Water damage: If your habitat floods, you have bigger issues than instrument health.

  • Life: Generally, a habitat should have less insect life than somewhere on Earth because there is (presumably!) no robust biosphere of native life that can attack the organic materials in the instruments. That said, the International Space Station is notorious for having mold problems and a generally peculiar smell that presumably comes from lots of people of people living in close proximity and working hard.

In Summary:

Instruments of all types should keep rather well in a space habitat, because the primary factors that cause instrument degradation (temperature and humidity) are already carefully monitored and controlled in the closed environment. Musicians just need to make sure to properly clean their instruments, and they will be fine!

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  • $\begingroup$ I really appreciate this, thank you very much! I have a follow-on question - how do you think the weaker gravity on Mars might affect musical instruments? If you could get a piano there, would the weaker gravitational field affect how the hammers fell strongly enough that there would be problems playing? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 11:00
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    $\begingroup$ @blargtronic I'm not a piano expert but I think a normal piano would not work in microgravity because it relies on gravity as the restorative force to move the key-action back into the resting position (when you press a key, you work against gravity). On Mars or the Moon, a piano would still work, although due to the restorative force acting on the keys being lower, keys would be easier to press (requiring less force) but also "reset" (move back up into their original positions) slower, meaning you would be unable to play extremely high tempo songs where the same note is pressed rapidly $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 11:23
  • $\begingroup$ That would have been my guess also - I think it would be very difficult to play with the sort of nuance Earth gravity has trained musicians to do, and there'd be a constant delay as you waited for the hammers to rise again $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 12:14
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    $\begingroup$ The "action" of the piano would also be lighter, since it would require less force from the player to lift each hammer (and damper) against gravity. This could be compensated for by adding additional weights to the keys, though. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 23:10
  • $\begingroup$ Yes indeed! I wonder how much weight would need to be added to make sure that the hammers and dampers fell in a way approximating Earth gravity - I read about violinist using leaded tape (golfers use it) to add weight to their bows when they are too light. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 8:01
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The figure 6 in this article shows how a penny coin changed over several years of the direct exposure to the Martian surface (NASA image):

enter image description here

It now has more mat finish but generally nothing much happened to it. As I expect trumpet do be made from comparable materials, I expect it to stay playable and even in tune over many years, at least a bugle with no valves. There may be corrosive brines on the surface but all you need is to place the trumped somewhere on a rock away from these. All you need is to shake the sand out of it that may be blown in by Martian storms.

A classic violin made from the wood would do worse because of the extreme changes of the temperature. I still expect to survive it longer than on Earth where the first rain likely would significantly damage it, and then wood-eating life (fungi, insects) could finish. There are violins made from metal and even stone, if you are building a plot for the story it could be one of these. I do not think that strings would survive well however, they are usually not even metal.

The question was later narrowed to ask only how would the instruments survive inside the closed habitat module. I assume, likely the same as anywhere in the Earth building, unless there are problems with the climate control in the habitat.

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  • $\begingroup$ That article is really interesting and the image of the penny gives an idea of how tarnished a trumpet might end up. I am assuming the lack of humidity on Mars would cause the violin to buckle and pegs to slip etc. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 8:51
  • $\begingroup$ The question did not ask for an exposure to martian atmosphere. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ The question has been edited I think. $\endgroup$
    – Nightrider
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 6:19
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    $\begingroup$ Aside: Looks like a 25 dollar value penny. (select 1909 VDB) Certainly the fuel to get it to Mars cost more. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ @chux-ReinstateMonica: Of course, if you could bring it back to Earth, "a 1909 penny that has been to Mars" would sell for much more than $25. But I suspect it wouldn't be worth the cost of retrieval. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 20, 2022 at 18:36

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