They appear after shark attacks, marathons, earthquakes and even terrorist attacks like the one in Paris last year. And they have appeared en masse most recently in images of migrants and refugees attempting deadly crossings of the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.
They are commonly called space blankets and they look like sheets of foil, silver on one side and gold on the other.
They look that way for a reason. They’re flyweight, plastic sheets layered with an infrared coating of vaporized aluminum that make them super reflective so they can effectively shield a person from cold temperatures and brisk winds and help retain body heat.
But why are they called space blankets? They actually do have an interstellar connection.
NASA used the same shiny insulation material to protect many of its Earth-made crafts from the much harsher environment of space. It was first used as a parasol-type shield to keep Skylab from overheating after the spacecraft lost a heat shield during launch, according to NASA.
“Thermal blankets are to spacecraft as clothes are to people,” Mike Weiss, the technical deputy program manager for the Hubble telescope, once said.
They have been used as emergency first aid: to warm marathon runners who experience a rapid cool-down after the finish line and shark attack victims who have lost a lot of blood. Mountaineers and campers use them frequently; you can get one at outdoor outfitters like REI for $3.95.
Hospitals use them to keep both medical staff and patients warm in the chilled environments of operating theaters.
And they are commonly seen after natural disasters, including the massive 2005 earthquake that devastated Himalayan villages and towns in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. More than 150,000 space blankets were shipped to shivering victims.
In the European migrant crisis, the space blankets have been life-saving, especially for people who made the sea crossing in the winter, when air temperatures were below zero and the water frigid enough to cause death by hypothermia.
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