The toxic side of the Moon

July 5, 2018, European Space Agency
Credit: ESA/NASA

When the Apollo astronauts returned from the Moon, the dust that clung to their spacesuits made their throats sore and their eyes water. Lunar dust is made of sharp, abrasive and nasty particles, but how toxic is it for humans?

The "lunar hay fever", as NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt described it during the Apollo 17 mission created symptoms in all 12 people who have stepped on the Moon. From sneezing to nasal congestion, in some cases it took days for the reactions to fade. Inside the spacecraft, the dust smelt like burnt gunpowder.

The Moon missions left an unanswered question of lunar exploration – one that could affect humanity's next steps in the Solar System: can jeopardise human health?

An ambitious ESA research programme with experts from around the planet is now addressing the issues related to lunar dust.

"We don't know how bad this dust is. It all comes down to an effort to estimate the degree of risk involved," says Kim Prisk, a pulmonary physiologist from the University of California with over 20 years of experience in human spaceflight – one of the 12 scientists taking part in ESA's research.

Nasty dust

Lunar dust has silicate in it, a material commonly found on planetary bodies with volcanic activity. Miners on Earth suffer from inflamed and scarred lungs from inhaling silicate. On the Moon, the dust is so abrasive that it ate away layers of spacesuit boots and destroyed the vacuum seals of Apollo sample containers.

NASA astronaut commander Eugene Cernan inside the lunar module on the Moon after his second moonwalk of the Apollo 17 mission. His spacesuit is covered with lunar dust. Credit: NASA

Fine like powder, but sharp like glass. The low gravity of the Moon, one sixth of what we have on Earth, allows tiny particles to stay suspended for longer and penetrate more deeply into the lung.

"Particles 50 times smaller than a human hair can hang around for months inside your lungs. The longer the particle stays, the greater the chance for toxic effects," explains Kim.

The potential damage from inhaling this dust is unknown but research shows that lunar soil simulants can destroy lung and brain cells after long-term exposure.

Down to the particle

On Earth, fine tend to smoothen over years of erosion by wind and water, lunar dust however, is not round, but sharp and spiky.

The toxic side of the Moon
Lunar dust particle. Credit: NASA/JSC

In addition the Moon has no atmosphere and is constantly bombarded by radiation from the Sun that causes the soil to become electrostatically charged.

This charge can be so strong that the dust levitates above the lunar surface, making it even more likely to get inside equipment and people's lungs.

Dusty workplace

To test equipment and the behaviour of lunar dust, ESA will be working with simulated Moon dust mined from a volcanic region in Germany.

Working with the simulant is no easy feat. "The rarity of the lunar glass-like material makes it a special kind of dust. We need to grind the source material but that means removing the sharp edges," says Erin Tranfield, biologist and expert in toxicity.

The lunar soil does have a bright side. "You can heat it to produce bricks that can offer shelter for astronauts. Oxygen can be extracted from the soil to sustain human missions on the Moon," explains science advisor Aidan Cowley.

NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt uses scoop to retrieve lunar samples during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Credit: NASA

Explore further: Breathing lunar dust could pose health risk to future astronauts

Related Stories

Dust dilemma settles on upcoming moon missions

February 23, 2018

The world's foremost authority on lunar dust is suggesting the powder-like substance, which is finer than talcum powder and more abrasive than sandpaper, remains a major risk-management problem hampering upcoming space expeditions.

The moon is toxic

July 11, 2012

As our closest neighbor in space, a time-capsule of planetary evolution and the only world outside of Earth that humans have stepped foot on, the Moon is an obvious and ever-present location for future exploration by humans. ...

Recommended for you

A new classification scheme for exoplanet sizes

September 24, 2018

There are about 4433 exoplanets in the latest catalogs. Their radii have generally been measured by knowing the radius of their host star and then closely fitting the lightcurves as the planet transits across the face of ...

First to red planet will become Martians: Canada astronaut

September 22, 2018

Astronauts traveling through space on the long trip to Mars will not have the usual backup from mission control on Earth and will need to think of themselves as Martians to survive, Canada's most famous spaceman half-jokingly ...

Three NASA missions return first-light data

September 21, 2018

NASA's continued quest to explore our solar system and beyond received a boost of new information this week with three key missions proving not only that they are up and running, but that their science potential is exceptional. ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Merrit
not rated yet Jul 05, 2018
And people want to make a lunar outpost?? Mars much better IMO when we have the technology.

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.