Mar 6, 2023 - News

WSU researchers conquer moon dust with new technology

Illustration of a pipette squeezing rocks into a test tube.  

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Think of how irritating dust in a home can be. Now imagine how much worse it could be if it were moon dust — electrostatically charged, clingy as packing peanuts, and abrasive as ground fiberglass.

Driving the news: Washington State University researchers discovered that a liquid nitrogen spray could remove more than 98% of the lunar dust from space suits.

  • The research published last month in Acta Astronautica was supported by a grant earned by researchers whose idea took top prize at NASA's Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge.

Why it matters: Not only does lunar dust pose a danger to astronaut health, it's "like running coarse sandpaper over billion-dollar instrumentation and equipment," said NASA. WSU researchers explained further:

  • During the Apollo missions in the 1960s and early 1970s, astronauts tried unsuccessfully to remove the dust from their spacesuits with a brush.
  • The tiny particles got into engines, electronics and spacesuits where they destroyed seals.
  • Astronauts also suffered from "lunar hay fever," and researchers think longer exposure to the dust could cause lung damage similar to that of black lung disease.

What they're saying: "It posed a lot of problems that affected the missions as well as the astronauts once they returned home," said Ian Wells, the paper's first author and a senior in WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

Person in spacesuit walks on the Moon
This photograph was taken at Tranquility Base on July 20, 1969, when humans first walked on the Moon. Photo: Courtesy of NASA

What's next: The researchers are now working to fully understand and model the complex interactions between the dust particles and liquid nitrogen that allows the cleaning process to work. They are also applying for another grant to test the technology in conditions that more closely approximate outer space.

Thought bubble from Axios' senior space reporter Miriam Kramer: "This kind of research could be particularly relevant in the future as nations aim to send people to the lunar surface. NASA is planning to land astronauts on the Moon as soon as 2025 as part of its Artemis program."


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