NASA's Big Chore: Dusting on the Moon

Harrison Schmitt's white space suit was covered in gray lunar dust. i i

hide captionHarrison Schmitt's white space suit was covered in gray lunar dust during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

NASA
Harrison Schmitt's white space suit was covered in gray lunar dust.

Harrison Schmitt's white space suit was covered in gray lunar dust during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

NASA
Smudges of dust cover Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan.

hide captionSmudges of dust cover Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan as he rests in the lunar module after a long day of exploration.

NASA
A speck of moon dirt i i

hide captionA speck of moon dirt: Its shape results from the welding of rock, mineral and glass by the heat of micrometeoroid impacts.

David S. McKay/NASA/JSC
A speck of moon dirt

A speck of moon dirt: Its shape results from the welding of rock, mineral and glass by the heat of micrometeoroid impacts.

David S. McKay/NASA/JSC
A lunar rover, driven by Astronaut John Young, kicks up dust during the Apollo 16 mission in 1972.

hide captionA lunar rover, driven by Astronaut John Young, kicks up dust during the Apollo 16 mission in 1972.

NASA

As NASA makes plans to go back to the moon, it must face a problem that Apollo astronauts recognized when they last walked on the lunar surface more than 30 years ago. The moon is covered in dust that's so incredibly fine and abrasive, it could potentially damage everything from space suits to an astronaut's lungs.

Eugene Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon, in 1972. He spent a lot of his time there doing a low-tech chore: dusting.

He and his Apollo 17 crewmate, Harrison Schmitt, had little dust brushes. But the dark, gray dust was relentless. It stuck to their suits and their tools. It scratched their visors and followed them into their lunar module. When Schmitt took his helmet off, he got all congested.

"I didn't know I had lunar-dust hay fever," he said.

Back on Earth, more than 30 years later, Schmitt still remembers that weird lunar dust.

"This is unique dust," he says. "It is not like the dust that we are trying to keep out of our houses."

For one thing, it smelled like gunpowder and it hung in the air like smoke.

A New Incentive to Study Dust

NASA never got much of a chance to study the lunar dust.

"If the Apollo program had continued, there would have been a major program to look at moon dust," says Russell Kerschmann, a pathologist at NASA's Ames Research Center. "But when Apollo was shut down, the incentive to spend precious resources on this area kind of went away."

Now, that incentive has returned. NASA wants to get back to the moon and stay for weeks at a time. So later this month, it is bringing experts together to talk about dust.

Moon dust is the product of billions of years of pounding. The moon has no atmosphere to protect it, so it gets pummeled by countless tiny meteorites. They break up the moon's glassy rock into something that looks like volcanic ash, but the tiny bits have jagged edges.

Kerschmann says there's almost no research on the long-term effects of breathing it.

"Many of these similar kinds of materials that are produced in industrial settings and on Earth are handled quite well by the human body," he says. "And there's a few of them that have caused problems over the centuries, silica and asbestos being a couple. The thing is, we just don't know."

He's working with a group to study the health effects in animals.

How to Protect Equipment?

Other researchers are trying to come up with ways to keep dust from damaging equipment, like special coatings that could repel the dust.

Larry Taylor has a lab devoted to moon dust at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He's discovered that it has some unusual properties. "For example, most of the lunar dust can be picked up with an ordinary magnet."

The fine grains contain tiny amounts of iron, so magnetic filters might be used to pull the dust out of the air.

That iron makes the dust behave in another strange way.

"If you put this lunar soil into a microwave oven, it will melt before your tea water boils," Taylor says.

The melted dust hardens into a glassy blob. Taylor says that future astronauts could use microwaves to pave the lunar soil or make bricks for building.

Schmitt, the Apollo 17 astronaut, is glad that engineers are looking into this, though he says NASA shouldn't panic over dust.

"A lot of common sense and good engineering will prevent any problem from arising," he says.

He says living on the moon will mean a lot of challenges; dust should be one of the smaller ones.

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