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Space CSI investigates a murder in microgravity


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ATLANTA — There has never been a homicide in space. But Detective Zack Kowalske is conducting research to investigate the first murder in microgravity, not if – but when – it happens.

“Where humanity goes, so does human behavior,” Kowalske said, a crime scene investigator (CSI) for the police department in Roswell, Georgia, a suburb north of Atlanta. “So it’s really important to be able to understand how best to reconstruct these criminal acts.”

On Earth, CSIs examine blood spatter to determine the position of an attacker in relation to a victim. But Kowalske became curious about how these calculations would change if gravity was removed from the equation.


He joined forces with researchers from University of Louisville in Kentucky and Staffordshire University and the University of Hull in England to examine projection models created in microgravity. They conducted their research aboard a parabolic plane, an aircraft that makes a series of steep, controlled descents to create brief periods of weightlessness inside the cabin.

During these “weightless” periods, one of the researchers used a syringe to spray simulated blood onto a target located inside a glove box resembling a pediatric incubator.

Without the downward pull of gravity, Kowalske and his colleagues knew that the simulated blood would follow a straight path. But when they hit the targets, the researchers were surprised to find projections much smaller than what they would see under normal gravity conditions.

Det. Zack Kowalske holds a sample of simulated blood spatter. (Fox News)

“What happened is that when you remove gravity, surface tension becomes the predominant factor,” Kowalske said. “So that inhibits the spread of that blood, causing an inaccuracy in your calculation.”

The first one homicide in space This will not only require new investigative procedures, but will likely raise questions about who is in charge of the investigation.

“Jurisdiction will be tricky,” space prosecutor Michelle Hanlon told Fox News in an email. “Space objects remain under the jurisdiction and control of the State that launched the object.”


But this may include the country that requested the launch in addition to the country that owns the territory or facility where the launch took place.

“So if you have a modular space station run by a Japanese company, whose modules were manufactured in Germany and then launched by the United States, all of those states can claim jurisdiction,” explained Hanlon, CEO of For All Moonkind . a non-profit space policy advocacy group. “Of course, the next question is what happens if the crime occurs in an object made in space? Jurisdiction will be even more complex!”

The main international agreement governing space activities, the Outer Space Treaty, holds nations responsible for harm caused by their citizens in space. For this reason, Hanlon predicts that victims or their survivors will also want to have a say in who investigates.

While traveling on a “reduced gravity” plane, researchers sprayed imitation blood to simulate a crime scene in space. (Zack Kowalske)

Although he became an astronaut for a government space agency, like NASA, remains highly selective, Detective Kowalske said the future growth of private “space tourism” increases the risk that a less professional individual will cause chaos at the final frontier. However, his research also has potential applications for accident reconstruction.

“Let’s say hypothetically we have a ship in orbit and there’s a catastrophic event,” Kowalske said. “We can use bloodstain models to reconstruct where the crew members were, what position they may have been in during this catastrophic failure.”

Kowalske and his colleagues published their study in the journal “Forensic Science International: Reports.” For the suburban Georgia detective, it was part of his ongoing doctoral research and the culmination of what began as “a crazy idea.”


“Research is cool, right? Science is awesome,” Kowalske said. “You never know where asking a question will lead. But you can find out.”


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