NASA’s next moonwalkers may be able to simply spray away sticky moondust.
A liquid nitrogen spray has blasted away more than 98% of the simulated lunar dust during experiments here on Earth and could offer welcome relief to future lunar explorers. The abrasive, fiberglass-like lunar dust was a constant problem on Apollo missions, dragging on equipment like lunar rovers.
“Moondust is electrostatically charged, abrasive, and gets everywhere, making it a very difficult substance to handle,” wrote Ian Wells, lead author of a study reporting the new findings, and a graduate student at Washington State University, in an explanation (opens in new tab). “In the end you have at least a fine layer of dust that just covers everything.”
Related: How will NASA deal with the lunar dust problem for Artemis moon landings?
NASA landed 12 people on the moon for field trips of up to three days between 1969 and 1972. The longest moonwalk lasted about 7.5 hours on Apollo 17 in December 1972, with that mission setting a record 22 hours and four minutes of spacesuit activity overall.
But even with these short missions, the astronauts found that lunar dust got in everywhere. Brushing the material did little to remove the material, and corrosion on spacesuit engines, electronics, and seals was both inconvenient and costly.
Worse, some astronauts contracted a form of “lunar hay fever,” which may have been the first signs of respiratory problems like those experienced by miners, Washington state officials said. Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, also known as “black lung disease,” occurs when people inhale coal dust. Dust scars the lungs over time, making it difficult to breathe, according to the American Lung Association (opens in new tab).
NASA wants to be more proactive about the dust issue to help protect its Artemis astronauts, who will begin exploring the lunar surface in the mid-2020s if all goes according to plan. And the Artemis program plans to establish a long-term human presence on the moon, so dust management is likely an even higher priority for NASA now than it was during the Apollo era.
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So the new dust spray technology could be really useful.
“In their work, the research team demonstrated their technology that uses the Leidenfrost effect to clean the spacesuits,” Washington State University officials wrote in the statement.
“The effect can be seen when you pour cold water onto a hot skillet, where it bubbles and moves across the pan,” they added. “Spray the very cold liquid nitrogen onto a warmer, dust-covered material, and the dust particles bead up and float away on the nitrogen vapor.”
Study members found that the liquid nitrogen spray was not too harsh on the spacesuit, but was still effective at removing dust. The study found that brushing caused damage after just one session, while liquid nitrogen took 75 cycles before damaging the suit.
The new research, which was supported by a NASA grant, was published in the journal Acta Astronautica (opens in new tab). The technology also received top honors in the agency’s Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge (opens in new tab) in 2022. Washington State associate professor Jacob Leachman supervised the student team.
The next steps for the research, university officials wrote, include “work to fully understand and model the complex interactions between the dust particles and liquid nitrogen that allow the cleaning process to work.” Study members have also applied for a grant to test the technology in simulated lunar gravity, which is one-sixth the gravity of Earth.
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “why am i taller (opens in new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; starring Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).