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.

      COVID-19 amplified America’s devastating health gap. Can we bridge it?

      The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.

      Willie Mae Daniels makes melted cheese sandwiches with her granddaughter, Karyah Davis, 6, after being laid off from her job as a food service cashier at the University of Miami on March 17, 2020.

      Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
      Sponsored by Northwell Health
      • The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
      • Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
      • To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
      Keep reading Show less

      Who is the highest selling artist from your state?

      What’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota?

      Eminem may be 'from' Detroit, but he was born in Missouri
      Culture & Religion

      This is a mysterious map. Obviously about music, or more precisely musicians. But what’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota? None of these musicians are from those states! Everyone knows that! Is this map that stupid, or just looking for a fight? Let’s pause a moment and consider our attention spans, shrinking faster than polar ice caps.

      Keep reading Show less

      Skyborne whales: The rise (and fall) of the airship

      Can passenger airships make a triumphantly 'green' comeback?

      R. Humphrey/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
      Technology & Innovation

      Large airships were too sensitive to wind gusts and too sluggish to win against aeroplanes. But today, they have a chance to make a spectacular return.

      Keep reading Show less

      Vegans are more likely to suffer broken bones, study finds

      Vegans and vegetarians often have nutrient deficiencies and lower BMI, which can increase the risk of fractures.

      Credit: Jukov studi via Adobe Stock
      Surprising Science
      • The study found that vegans were 43% more likely to suffer fractures than meat eaters.
      • Similar results were observed for vegetarians and fish eaters, though to a lesser extent.
      • It's possible to be healthy on a vegan diet, though it takes some strategic planning to compensate for the nutrients that a plant-based diet can't easily provide.
      Keep reading Show less
      Scroll down to load more…