As NASA prepares to send its second human mission to the moon through the Artemis program, there is one big hurdle that they have to overcome — lunar dust. During the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first set of humans on the surface of the moon, the astronauts realised how the lunar dust hampered their activity by getting into camera lenses, causing radiators to overheat, and damaging their spacesuits. Now, with the three-part Artemis mission, NASA is working on how to overcome the lunar dust problem so that its avant-garde scientific equipment do not face any glitch. In a press release earlier this month, Sharon Miller, the passive dust shedding material program’s principal investigator at NASA’S Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, said that the researchers learnt from Apollo that lunar dust can be less than 20 microns (about 0.00078 inches) in size. She said some of the equipment on the Apollo 11 spacecraft got overheated because the lunar dust prevented the heat from radiating away and signs of mechanical clogging of equipment were also visible. Miller also mentioned that the lunar dust is very fine, abrasive and sharp, like tiny pieces of glass, making it more of a dangerous threat than just a simple nuisance.
Lunar dust is much more damaging than the dust found on earth. Due to the lack of wind on the moon’s surface, the dust particles do not get smoothed out around the edges as they do on earth. This makes lunar dust much sharper on the edges.
Erica Montbach, project manager of the lunar dust mitigation project at NASA’s Glenn, mentioned in the statement that the origins of lunar dust are in the regolith, which are the rocks and minerals that are on the moon. She said this dust is characterised by their more jagged edges on the fine particulate.
The US space agency also revealed that the behaviour of lunar dust varies from place to place. Lunar dust found on the Moon’s equator or highlands or the dark side behaves differently. The sun-facing side is constantly exposed to solar radiation because of which the dust on the dayside has a positive electrical charge. While this solar charging also means it clings to everything like static here on the Earth.
To tackle this problem, NASA set up the Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative (LSII) in 2019 to coordinate cross-agency teams and brainstorm the creation of novel technologies needed for lunar surface exploration.