Scientists blow away sticky moon dust with electrons

Dust sticking to things on the moon is a serious problem researchers are trying to solve.

footprint on the moon
Credit: NASA
  • Jagged, abrasive lunar dust can damage spacesuits and equipment.
  • The electrically charged dust particles grab onto surfaces like a sock just out of the dryer.
  • Scientists are exploring ways of blowing away lunar dust using beams of electrons.

    • Astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, who said it smelled like "spent gunpowder" and developed an allergy to the stuff, was no fan of the moon's peculiar brand of dust. Nor were any of his Apollo-era colleagues fond of the regolith that got kicked up from the lunar surface whenever they walked or drove around. The dust got into, and stuck to, everything.

      "It's really annoying," says Xu Wang of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at Colorado University Boulder, speaking to CU Boulder Today. "Lunar dust sticks to all kinds of surfaces — spacesuits, solar panels, helmets — and it can damage equipment."

      The CU Boulder researchers have been working on a means of overcoming this little-known technical obstacle to moon exploration. Their research was recently published in the journal Acta Astronautica, and it involves a lunar dustbuster that disperses sticky moon dust with beams of electrons.

      Sticky situation

      Microscopic view of man-made "moon dust"

      Credit: IMPACT lab/CU Boulder

      Lunar dust is not much like the stuff settling on the surfaces of your home. For one thing, Wang reports, "Lunar dust is very jagged and abrasive, like broken shards of glass."

      The reason that it's so stubbornly sticky is that it carries an electric charge not unlike that of a sock you've just removed from the dryer. The charge results from being continually exposed to the Sun's radiation as the dust sits on the lunar surface unprotected by an atmosphere like ours. The moon does have very thin atmosphere that contains odd gases such as sodium and potassium, says NASA, but it isn't thick enough to afford much protection from radiation.

      Overload of electrons

      The researchers explored the idea of shooting a beam of electrons at lunar dust to fill the spaces between its particles with negative charges that could push the particles further apart, away from each other and also off a surface to which they might be adhering. Says Wang, "The charges become so large that they repel each other, and then dust ejects off of the surface."

      To test their concept, the researchers acquired lunar regolith stimulant from NASA, a substance formulated on Earth that's designed to replicate lunar dust. They placed objects of various materials that had been coated with the stuff in a vacuum chamber and fired electron beams at them. (The video above shows the dust's response.)

      Speaking of the behavior of the electron-blasted dust on a number of tested surfaces, including spacesuit fabric and glass, "It literally jumps off," says lead author Benjamin Farr. However, the finest-grained regolith, the kind that gets stuck in brushes, remained unperturbed by the electrons. Overall, the electrons cleaned off about 75 percent to 85 percent of the dust. "It worked pretty well, but not well enough that we're done," says Farr. Looking forward, the team is exploring ways in which the electron beam's cleaning power can be increased.

      This is not the first attempt at using electrons to clean up lunar dust. For example, NASA has explored using nanotube electrode networks in spacesuits to keep dust off. To keep regolith off other materials, NASA is also considered combining charge-dissipating indium tin oxide with paint that could then be applied to otherwise dust-collecting surfaces.

      The CU Boulder team anticipates one day hanging up a spacesuit in a room or compartment where it can be bombarded with electrons for cleaning. Even more convenient would be facilities where "You could just walk into an electron beam shower to remove fine dust," says study coauthor Mihály Horányi of CU Boulder's Department of Physics.

      Live on Thursday: Learn innovation with 3-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn

      Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live this Thursday at 1pm ET.

      Big Think LIVE

      Add event to your calendar

      AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo


      Keep reading Show less

      A new minimoon is headed towards Earth, and it’s not natural

      Astronomers spot an object heading into Earth orbit.

      Credit: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Paitoon Pornsuksomboon/Shutterstock/Big Think
      Surprising Science
    • Small objects such as asteroids get trapped for a time in Earth orbit, becoming "minimoons."
    • Minimoons are typically asteroids, but this one is something else.
    • The new minimoon may be part of an old rocket from the 1960s.
    • Keep reading Show less

      Only 35 percent of Americans know the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease

      Yet 80 percent of respondents want to reduce their risk of dementia.

      Photo: Lightspring / Shutterstock
      Mind & Brain
      • A new MDVIP/Ipsos survey found that only 35 percent of Americans know the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
      • Eighty percent of respondents said they want to reduce their risks.
      • An estimated 7.1 million Americans over the age of 65 will suffer from Alzheimer's by 2025.
      Keep reading Show less

      US, Russia, China won't join global initiative to offer fair access to COVID-19 vaccines. Why not?

      The U.S., China, and Russia are in a "vaccine race" that treats a global challenge like a winner-take-all game.

      Coronavirus
    • More than 150 countries have joined an initiative to develop, produce, and fairly distribute an effective COVID-19 vaccine.
    • But China, Russia, and the U.S. have declined to join in a bid to win the vaccine race.
    • The absence of these three economies risks the success of the global initiative and future collaborations.
    • Keep reading Show less
      Sex & Relationships

      Being in a frisky mood may improve your chances in the dating world

      Positive, romantic thoughts could produce positive, romantic outcomes while dating.

      Scroll down to load more…
      Quantcast