We Still Don’t Know How to Deal With Moon Dust

By Nathaniel Scharping | March 2, 2018 10:36 am
Astronaut James B. Irwin, lunar module pilot, uses a scoop in making a trench in the lunar soil during Apollo 15. (Credit: NASA)

Astronaut James B. Irwin, lunar module pilot, uses a scoop in making a trench in the lunar soil during Apollo 15. (Credit: NASA)

If we’re going back to the moon, we’re going to need to learn how to deal with the dust.

U.S. President Donald Trump has made returning to the moon a priority, and China and India both have lunar landers in the works. The endeavor is difficult for myriad reasons, but one borders on the prosaic — moon dust.

Dust Bowl

The moon is a dirty place. Apollo astronauts reported returning to their lander covered in dust that smelled of spent gunpowder — astronaut Alan Bean even worried that dust floating around the cabin was making it too difficult to breathe as they lifted off. The dust coated spacesuits, instruments, visors and skin. It occasionally caused serious problems. One astronaut, Harrison Schmitt, reported a mild allergic reaction, similar to hay fever, after a moon walk, and some scientists worry the fine particles could wreak havoc on our lungs.

A seismometer deployed by Apollo 11 — the first instrument placed on the moon — failed soon thereafter when dust caused it to overheat. China’s Yutu rover died in 2014, and moon dust was a top suspect. Aside from issues with overheating, the grit can cause parts to wear out quickly, clog up seals, obscure vision, degrade traction and result in false instrument readings. It’s a real problem.

The dust comes from meteorite impacts, which throw up and briefly melt lunar rock. The droplets condense into a kind of vapor, which settles back to the ground as dust. Billions of years of such impacts have made for a lunar surface that’s very dusty indeed.

The dust is so frustrating, in part, because its so small. Lunar dust measures in at just 70 micrometers, or 0.07 millimeters, in diameter on average. That’s around the size of the very finest grains of sand, or silt. To add to the annoyance, lunar dust carries a slight electric charge, a result of solar radiation stripping electrons away, and that property serves to make the dust even stickier. Its structure doesn’t help, either. Due to the lack of wind-swept erosion, the grains are barbed and jagged, which helps them stick to everything.

There are surprisingly few solutions to such a seemingly simple problem. Astronauts on some Apollo missions carried a special brush with them to help clean off spacesuits before re-entering the lander. A vacuum was included on some missions, which worked, but made for tedious work. Because the dust is magnetic, one researcher has proposed simply using magnets in a filter to collect it, though it hasn’t been tried on the moon yet. Keeping dust off of external equipment is a more daunting task, and one that’s likely to continue to be a problem.

So, should NASA manage to navigate the political and technical challenges necessary to get a moon mission off the ground, they’ll come face to face with an old nemesis once again. Perhaps this time, we’ll be better prepared.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    Not merely dust, microspherules. They get into everything (“particulate osmosis”), ruining gears, abrading hinges, and making seals leak. Good pulmonary irritants. They also cause the anomalously bright full moon like 3M retroreflector tape.

    Somebody new to glove boxes gets all jiggy about using ziploc bags for sample storage. A trace of ultra-dry powder neutralizes a ziploc seal. There is no grab at all. Sticky tape to remove and grab the stuff.

  • John Thompson

    It’s a big problem for people who want to go in and out of a craft.
    For the craft itself it’s not so bad – the craft is sealed to the outside.
    Personally I think that manned missions are not the way to go. Way too expensive – and frankly all the people do is collect samples for the machines.
    With all the automation like self driving cars – our best bet is to go for more miniaturization and automation.
    The rovers on Mars were great first steps.
    We will constantly improve our technology, making more capable and miniaturized (smaller/lighter is much cheaper to put into space) robotic devices.
    We won’t be able to improve humans.
    This dust, the radiation, the immense needs of delicate human bodies – it all points toward why many people think automation, not human carrying craft, will be how we really explore space.

  • Rod Seel

    This is why we should not build a lunar base on the surface of the Moon. There are too many problems. With temperatures extremes, radiation, micro-meteors and lunar dusk, we need to get off the surface. Fortunately, the Moon has lava tubes that are much larger than Earth’s and Mars. In fact, they are much larger. This would be the ideal location to build the first Moon base. It solves all the problems that we deal with on the surface of the Moon.

    Another problem with surface dust is how it may effect solar panels? It may be smarter to look at nuclear power. We then could locate a base anywhere on the Moon. Marius Hills giant lava tubes look to be the best location so far. Now with new evidence that OH is found everywhere on the Moon, we are not bound to polar regions. More energy is required to make water, but nuclear energy solves that problem.

    • John Thompson

      One problem is that by treaty no country can own any land on the moon.
      Of course as I see it, that’s not even the biggest problem.
      Much bigger problem is all the expense – with little to no return.
      We haven’t even really started mining the oceans here. Why not?
      International law blocks it in some ways, but also just the expense of doing it.
      Other than drilling for gas and oil offshore, it is still generally more expensive to mine the oceans than the return on that investment.
      If we can’t mine the oceans here, then I doubt we can mine places like the moon with any greater economic return.
      Artificial islands, floating islands – they make alot more economic sense than trying to put a city on the moon.

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