NASA's dirty secret: Moon dust

September 26, 2008
Lunar dust melts readily when exposed to microwave energy. Professor Larry Taylor of the University of Tennessee envisions a lunar paver fitted with microwave generators that could sinter, or melt, lunar soils into landing strips or roads. Credit: Larry Taylor

The Apollo Moon missions of 1969-1972 all share a dirty secret. "The major issue the Apollo astronauts pointed out was dust, dust, dust," says Professor Larry Taylor, Director of the Planetary Geosciences Institute at the University of Tennessee. Fine as flour and rough as sandpaper, Moon dust caused 'lunar hay fever,' problems with space suits, and dust storms in the crew cabin upon returning to space.

Taylor and other scientists will present their research on lunar dust at the "Living on a Dusty Moon" session on Thursday, 9 October 2008, at the Joint Meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA), Soil Science Society of America (SSSA), American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), and Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies (GCAGS) in Houston, Texas, USA. NASA will use these findings to plan a safer manned mission to the Moon in 2018. Taylor will also deliver a Pardee Keynote Session talk on Sunday, 5 October 2008 entitled "Formation and Evolution of Lunar Soil from An Apollo Perspective."

The trouble with moon dust stems from the strange properties of lunar soil. The powdery grey dirt is formed by micrometeorite impacts which pulverize local rocks into fine particles. The energy from these collisions melts the dirt into vapor that cools and condenses on soil particles, coating them in a glassy shell.

These particles can wreak havoc on space suits and other equipment. During the Apollo 17 mission, for example, crewmembers Harrison "Jack" Schmitt and Gene Cernan had trouble moving their arms during moonwalks because dust had gummed up the joints. "The dust was so abrasive that it actually wore through three layers of Kevlar-like material on Jack's boot," Taylor says.

To make matters worse, lunar dust suffers from a terrible case of static cling. UV rays drive electrons out of lunar dust by day, while the solar wind bombards it with electrons by night. Cleaning the resulting charged particles with wet-wipes only makes them cling harder to camera lenses and helmet visors. Mian Abbas of the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville, Alabama, will discuss electrostatic charging on the moon and how dust circulates in lunar skies.

Luckily, lunar dust is also susceptible to magnets. Tiny specks of metallic iron (Fe0) are embedded in each dust particle's glassy shell. Taylor has designed a magnetic filter to pull dust from the air, as well as a "dust sucker" that uses magnets in place of a vacuum. He has also discovered that microwaves melt lunar soil in less time than it takes to boil a cup of tea. He envisions a vehicle that could microwave lunar surfaces into roads and landing pads as it drives, and a device to melt soil over lunar modules to provide insulation against space radiation. The heating process can also produce oxygen for breathing.

But the same specks of iron that could make moon dust manageable also pose a potential threat to human health, according to Bonnie Cooper at NASA's Johnson Space Center. "Those tiny blebs of pure iron we see on the surface of lunar grains are likely to be released from the outside edges of the particle in the lungs and enter the bloodstream," she says. Preliminary studies suggest that the inhalation of lunar dust may pose a health hazard, possibly including iron toxicity. Members of NASA's Lunar Airborne Dust Toxicity Advisory Group, Cooper, Taylor, and colleagues are studying how moon dust affects the respiratory system. They plan to set a lunar dust exposure standard by 2010, in time for NASA engineers to design a safer and cleaner trip to the Moon.

Source: Geological Society of America

Explore further: Lasers could give space research its 'broadband' moment

Related Stories

Recommended for you

The dawn of a new era for Supernova 1987a (Update)

February 24, 2017

Three decades ago, astronomers spotted one of the brightest exploding stars in more than 400 years. The titanic supernova, called Supernova 1987A (SN 1987A), blazed with the power of 100 million suns for several months following ...

'Ring of fire' eclipse treat for southern skygazers

February 24, 2017

A spectacular "ring of fire" solar eclipse Sunday will regale skygazers in South America and southern Africa, with seafarers in the nearby Atlantic getting a front-row view too, astronomers say.

Vast luminous nebula poses a cosmic mystery

February 23, 2017

Astronomers have found an enormous, glowing blob of gas in the distant universe, with no obvious source of power for the light it is emitting. Called an "enormous Lyman-alpha nebula" (ELAN), it is the brightest and among ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.7 / 5 (3) Sep 26, 2008
Why can't we do this here on earth to make roads?
5 / 5 (8) Sep 26, 2008
It would cost too much to transport the moon dust. ;-)
3.4 / 5 (9) Sep 26, 2008
Why would you need landing strips on an airless world with no fixed-wing flight possible?
5 / 5 (3) Sep 26, 2008
maybe landing pads so that the reaction rockets don't kick up dust? similar to being near a helicopter takeoff or landing on bare ground.
2 / 5 (4) Sep 26, 2008
Why would you need landing strips on an airless world with no fixed-wing flight possible?

5 / 5 (2) Sep 26, 2008
Suggestion: Sronger boots and a disposable lightweight dustcover that can be discarded when reentering the space capsule.
5 / 5 (2) Sep 26, 2008
Why would you need landing strips on an airless world with no fixed-wing flight possible?

To avoid spraying everything with dust.
5 / 5 (2) Sep 27, 2008
How deep can those microwaves penetrate? An inch? Won't this just create a thin crust of glass-like material that will shatter under the first astronaut's boot step creating thousands of shards of razor sharp moon-shrapnel?

And won't this melted-and-refrozen "dust" surface be extremely smooth and slippery with sharp uneven edges and knife-like popped bubble rims?

I think this needs just a touch more thought, don't you?

And don't all these dust problems get worse on Mars, with an atmosphere to buoy the dust and much more iron? Not to mention the recently discovered corrosive chemical make-up.

How long would I be able to breathe corrosive-ladden, iron-rich Mars dust?
3 / 5 (2) Sep 27, 2008
the microwave idea is great BUT where does all that energy come from? is it practical?
5 / 5 (3) Sep 27, 2008
The problem with moon dust as opposed to it's Earth equivalent is that it is not weathered at all, (due to no weather), so the dust is very sharp and blocky as opposed to our weathered rounded dust here. That's what gives the lunar dust the ability to stick in such great quantity and why it's so intrusive and obstructive. Now if we could find a way to repel this dust or a construct of greater efficiency than teflon to prevent obstruction, we'd have the issue solved.

The martial dust has been reported initially to be more similar to Earth dust, although the degree of weathering is an unknown quantity.

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.