Space

Will dust prevent us living on the Moon?

Will dust prevent us living on...
NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt retrieves lunar samples
NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt retrieves lunar samples
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Developed by researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, the Airway Monitoring experiment measures astronauts’ breath to determine the health of their lungs
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Developed by researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, the Airway Monitoring experiment measures astronauts’ breath to determine the health of their lungs
NASA astronaut commander Eugene Cernan inside the lunar module on the Moon after his second moonwalk of the Apollo 17 mission
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NASA astronaut commander Eugene Cernan inside the lunar module on the Moon after his second moonwalk of the Apollo 17 mission
This image of the Moon was taken by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst from the International Space Station during his Horizons mission
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This image of the Moon was taken by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst from the International Space Station during his Horizons mission
Lunar dust particle
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Lunar dust particle
NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt retrieves lunar samples
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NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt retrieves lunar samples
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If astronauts are ever going to return to the Moon, they must come to terms with the hazards of the lunar environment. To combat a major threat to astronaut health and technology, ESA is conducting a major study of moon dust to determine how dangerous it is and how to counter its effects on humans and machines.

Even before Neil Armstrong set foot on the Sea of Tranquility, scientists and engineers were concerned about the hazards of lunar dust. While rockets like the Saturn V were being tested for the first voyages to the Moon, there was a very real concern that moon dust would present an insurmountable barrier to lunar exploration.

The problem was that no one had a firm idea about what the surface of the Moon was like. Perhaps it was as firm as the great lava flats in Hawaii or Iceland. Or maybe the so-called seas and craters were filled with fine dust hundreds of meters deep in which any spaceship would vanish like a sash weight dropped in the ocean.

NASA astronaut commander Eugene Cernan inside the lunar module on the Moon after his second moonwalk of the Apollo 17 mission
NASA astronaut commander Eugene Cernan inside the lunar module on the Moon after his second moonwalk of the Apollo 17 mission

But what the Apollo astronauts found was unexpected and equally worrying. Instead of seas of liquid-like dust, they discovered that billions of years of micrometeorite impacts had coated the lunar surface with a fine layer of silicate dust that had a number of disturbing qualities.

For one thing, it was as dry as it's possible to be, and bombardment by solar and cosmic radiation had left the particles with a static electric charge. This made the dust stick to the astronauts' spacesuits as a grayish, black powder that was almost impossible to shift and ended up contaminating both the interior of the Lunar Module and the orbiting Command Module when they returned, making them smell like burned gunpowder.

Worse, the dryness and radiation made the dust chemically active and the particles were so abrasive that they took their toll on the spacesuits, sample containers, and other equipment. As for the astronauts, all 12 of the moon walkers came down with "lunar hay fever" with symptoms like sneezing and nasal congestion that took days to subside after returning to Earth.

Lunar dust particle
Lunar dust particle

Now, an international team of a dozen scientists will examine the long-term effects of exposure to moon dust. There are already indications that it could cause serious illnesses, like cancer, but the exact hazards posed by the dust and their implications remain largely unknown.

Silicate dust is already a hazard on Earth, especially for miners or people exposed to dust storms or volcanic eruptions, which can cause a condition called silicosis. But lunar dust is different. The highly active environment of Earth wears down silicate particles, so they become rounded, but moon dust has sharp, jagged edges that make it so abrasive that it wore away at the special outer boots worn by the moon walkers. What this would do to lung tissue can only be imagined at this point.

Another problem is that since the gravity on the Moon is only a sixth of the Earth's, it means that any nano-scale dust inside a spacecraft or habitat would remain suspended in the air for months, producing longer and deeper lung exposure.

According to ESA, one of the biggest hurdles to studying moon dust is that hardly any samples of the real thing is available, so a simulant made from material mined from a volcanic region of Germany is underway. While it's relatively easy to find the proper glass-like minerals, the difficulty is reproducing the abrasiveness and other properties needed to make a proper study.

Source: ESA

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15 comments
WilliamSager
To live on the moon or any foreign lunar or planetary body requires we first develop a self contained nuclear reactor. Ad the danger of silica dust and it's starting to seem we may never leave Earth.
SimonClarke
Planning for known issues is all that matters. firstly the use of suits that attach to vehicles will minimise dust ingress. For fixed based facilities there just needs to be cleaning rooms, floor mounted extraction / filtration systems, anti static dust removal (This is how a lot of the dust adheres to the suit), also having people cleaning the suit before removal or venturing inside the habitat.
with two weeks of sunlight and two weeks of dark. solar panels and storage batteries will be required.
VincentWolf
Spock would say that it's illogical to consider living anywhere else but planet Earth. With the time required for colonizing planets in other solar systems so immense--it's doubtful except for a mass migration caused by destroying our own planet would have any hope of success. And were rapidly going about that so man should be extinct soon.
windykites
It is stated that the dust has been caused by meteor impacts. This generates heat, and the particles would melt and form spherical globules. why are the particles rough?
As the dust was difficult to remove, there should have been samples available from the space suits. Strange no-one thought of collecting a cupful from the moon's surface. Surely the rock samples were coated in dust?
The incredible photos from Mars show that we don't need to actually go there. it is futile, in my opinion.
Paul Muad'Dib
Even if we find a way to keep moon dust from being a health and mechanical problem we will still need to figure out how to deal with the radiation problem.
SimonClarke
windy
while you are correct that on earth Meteorite impacts can create spheres. a lot of the dust is like volcanic ejecta, it's all sharp edges, unlike sand, it's never been rubbed against anything to have these edges rubbed off. they did collect samples of this on the moon landings. I'm just reading John Young's book 'Forever Young' and he describes them doing just that.
Herasblog
Well at least it is phosphorescent moon dust. Oh it is not? Then you should really think about why the moon "glows." And yet it is black when it crosses in front of the sun during an eclipse. Why is that? We know why.
Uncle Robot
The only way we will be able to colonize Mars or the moon is to terra-form it remotely beforehand. At the rate we are going with destroying Earth it seems unlikely we will be able to achieve that in time.
McDesign
Herasblog - tell us! Delineate your science, SVP - inquiring minds want to know!
Bruce Golden
hhmmm … so really is NOT a study of moon dust if NOT studying moon dust. If is a real issue due to near-term return on manned flights to the moon then check with NASA and the Russians about real moon dust material (or send a moon dust retrieval mission.