Solution To Clean Space Dust From Mars Exploration Vehicles

Sep 01, 2005

If keeping dust under control at your house is a challenge, imagine keeping clear the solar panels that power unmanned exploration vehicles on Mars.
Sid Clements, a physics professor at Appalachian State University, is part of a 12-member team of scientists across the United States working on a NASA project to solve the problem.

Clements's research at Appalachian focuses on both electrostatic applications and electrostatic hazards in the space program, including those in the Space Shuttle, International Space Station, and the exploration of the moon and Mars.

Even before unmanned research vehicles landed on Mars, scientists knew that dust would become a problem, Clements said. "There's no solution so far," he explained. "The dust slowly accumulates on the solar panel to the point it can't generate enough power."

Because the atmosphere on Mars is so thin and conditions are extremely dry, dust particles become charged, making them stick more readily to surfaces. "You can't just wipe charged dust off a surface with a brush," Clements said. "It's a big problem."

Working with both undergraduate and graduate students in Appalachian's Department of Physics and Astronomy, Clements is designing and testing prototypes of an electromagnetic screen that might successfully remove dust from solar cell panels on Mars Exploration Rovers.

The test screen looks like a small printed circuit board, minus the diodes and transistors. The screen has high-voltage, multiphase electrodes that produce a traveling electric field or "wave" which carries the charged dust particles off the surface.

The next step in the research will be to test screens with transparent conductors made of indium tin oxide or carbon nanotubes that would not interfere with the solar panels' operation.

Clements is testing screen designs in his campus lab simulating Martian conditions in a depressurized chamber, complete with simulated Mars dust made from volcanic material from Hawaii. What he and other scientists learn in the lab will also be applied to other applications.

Lunar dust particles were a problem for Apollo astronauts on the moon. Dust from the surface accumulated on their space suits and worked its way into various mechanical joints. Thermal radiators used to dispel heat on the lunar roving vehicle had to be covered during sorties to prevent dust accumulation, which limited the LRV's range.

Astronauts inadvertently carried dust into the lunar module where it affected air quality in the spacecraft. This is a health risk because lunar dust contains sharp particles that resemble silica or glass that can cause silicosis, a serious lung disease.

Clements's work for the Kennedy Space Center's Electrostatics and Surface Physics Laboratory is expected to take two years to complete. The overall project is being coordinated by the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. Clements's research grant totals $86,870.

Copyright 2005 by Space Daily, Distributed United Press International

Explore further: Rosetta Comet Landing in 'Thud' and 3D

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

What is the difference between asteroids and comets?

Nov 20, 2014

Asteroids and comets have a few things in common. They are both celestial bodies orbiting our Sun, and they both can have unusual orbits, sometimes straying close to Earth or the other planets. They are both ...

Philae probing comet with hours left on battery

Nov 14, 2014

Europe's probe Philae was busily conducting experiments on a comet 510 million kilometres (320 million miles) from Earth with just hours of onboard battery life left, ground control reported of signals received ...

Recommended for you

NASA's Webb Telescope mirror tripod in action (Video)

8 hours ago

Setting up NASA's James Webb Space Telescope's secondary mirror in space will require special arms that resemble a tripod. NASA recently demonstrated that test in a NASA cleanroom and it was documented in ...

Iridium flares captured in real time by astrophotographer

17 hours ago

There are so many fun sights to see in the sky that are pure astronomical magic. And then there are the spectacular human-created sights. One of those sights is watching satellites from the Iridium constellation ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.