Space

The hunt for spacesuit materials that can resist destructive lunar dust

The hunt for spacesuit materia...
Lunar dust covering the spacesuit of an Apollo 17 astronaut
Lunar dust covering the spacesuit of an Apollo 17 astronaut
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An abrasion testing machine
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An abrasion testing machine
A concept of a future lunar spacesuit
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A concept of a future lunar spacesuit
An Apollo spacesuit glove covered in lunar dust
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An Apollo spacesuit glove covered in lunar dust
Lunar dust covering the spacesuit of an Apollo 17 astronaut
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Lunar dust covering the spacesuit of an Apollo 17 astronaut
Lunar test simulant EAC-1
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Lunar test simulant EAC-1
A Bose mechanical testing machine
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A Bose mechanical testing machine
Microscopic views of simulated lunar dust
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Microscopic views of simulated lunar dust
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An ESA initiative is working with French engineering company Comex, the German Institutes for Textile and Fiber Research, and the Austrian Space Forum to look for new combinations of materials to create spacesuits and other equipment that are more resistant to the destructive and corrosive effects of lunar dust.

One of the greatest challenges that future astronauts will face when they return to the Moon is the talcum-like lunar regolith, which covers most of the surface. The result of millions of years of micrometeorite impacts and solar radiation, this finely ground dust is very different from its terrestrial counterpart.

Where Earth dust is subject to erosion, which smooths the particles down, lunar dust particles are razor-sharp and abrasive. Worse, it carries a static electric charge that makes it stick to almost anything and it has some unpleasant chemical properties. The result is a dust that the Apollo astronauts discovered gets everywhere and quickly obscured visors and clogged equipment, as well as wearing away the layers of their spacesuits. More recently, the dust was blamed for operational difficulties experienced by China’s Yutu rover two days after being deployed on the Moon.

Lunar test simulant EAC-1
Lunar test simulant EAC-1

"Depending on its area of origin, the dust might have very different chemical and abrasive characteristics, with its precise properties depending on the selected landing site – which is another factor of concern," says ESA structural engineer Shumit Das. "One of the key findings from Apollo was that the abrasion effects of the lunar regolith would be the major limiting factor in returning to the Moon. We want to overcome that and enable spacesuits that could be used for many more spacewalks than the few performed per Apollo landing – up to 2,500 hours of surface activities is our assumption."

Though ESA isn't developing its own spacesuits, the agency is looking at materials that can withstand the lunar dust better. These materials would not only make spacesuits more durable, it could also be used to make protective covers for rovers and other machinery.

As part of this effort, the ESA team is using state-of-the-art testing and a simulated lunar soil called EAC-1A that is made from volcanic soil and was developed by the agency’s European Astronaut Centre in Germany. Most of the testing was conducted by the German Institutes for Textile and Fiber Research and included abrasion tests of textiles, high-pressure liquid permeability tests, and exposure to extreme temperatures inside a vacuum chamber.

A concept of a future lunar spacesuit
A concept of a future lunar spacesuit

The purpose of the testing is to study the full life cycle of new lunar spacesuits to learn more about how they degrade – not only on the Moon, but also while they are stored aboard the Gateway outpost, where they may be susceptible to accelerated aging due to moisture and radiation.

"No one material can really do the job," says ESA materials and processes engineer Malgorzata Holynska. "Instead the concept is to have a layered solution, and define which combination of functional layers works best, in terms of physical and chemical interactions with regolith, and how to best connect them. We are then testing these different stacks against criteria contributed by our colleagues from ESA’s Directorate of Robotic and Human Exploration. The challenge here is to make the testing as robust as possible, to come up with credible results to guide our choice of trade-offs and down-selection."

Source: ESA

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4 comments
Techrex
If the lunar dust usually has an electrostatic charge, that makes it cling to the space suits, what if we make a tough, but flexible metal wire cloth sheath, that the astronauts can wear OVER their main suit, to prevent the dust from touching their suit? A kind of tailored overalls thing? If we make this wire cloth out of super-thin Gold threads, or perhaps a Nickel/Titanium alloy called Nitinol, which is a 'memory' alloy widely used in electronics, which has amazing durability, that thin sheath would take the brunt of the lunar dust's erosion effect. Plus, because this metal cloth is electrically conductive, we could add an electric device to stop the dust's electrostatic attraction to the suit, repel it. Ideally, we could create some kind of device that could recycle the lunar dust's electrostatic charge, to recharge the suits batteries. After this sheath gets somewhat worn out, they could take it off at the astronaut's lunar base, and melt the Gold or Nitinol sheath down, to use special re-casting machines that turn it back into extremely thin, but very high tensile strength, wires to weave into cloth, and then cut and tailor that special cloth to make new overall jumpsuits. This unlimited recycling of the same Gold or Nitinol, is important, because it could prove to be incredibly expensive to keep shipping up new sheaths, from the Earth to the moon, often. And because both Gold and this Nitinol wire cloths have such a high tensile strength, they could be a kind of armor, to keep the spacesuit from being accidently torn or pierced.
Dave222
Come on guys. Its been over 50 years since you found out the moon was about as useful as a very accessible terrestial desert. Couldnt some of the brilliant minds be better utilized to say help irrigate some of our dryer regions and thus improve quality of life for some of the 4/5 ths of earths people who still live in abject poverty. Sure......once life on earth is sorted.....then use some free time to tinker on Mars and the like.....but until then......
Bill S.
Dave222. I could not agree more. The zillions of dollars used on space exploration could be used to make this planet better for the less fortunate.
Signguy
Dave222: Kudos sir. Also, why is there dust to begin with? Does that suggest erosion? Where does this come from, what's the mechinism?