NASA’s going again to the moon and should confront a well-known enemy: Dust

The moon is extremely sizzling, and likewise extremely chilly.

There’s radiation. A skinny ambiance. No air to breathe.

If NASA ever establishes a lunar base — a long-term mission superior Wednesday with the launch of Artemis I — it should confront these challenges to human habitation.

It’ll even have to determine the mud.

Lunar mud is made from gnarly little particles — jagged and sharp-edged grains that add as much as a significant drawback for astronauts and nearly any human-made object that’s imagined to land or take off from the moon.

For years, NASA scientists have studied simply how a lot injury that mud, together with lunar gravel and rocks, may trigger, notably when it will get kicked up by rocket engines and begins jetting about at speeds quicker than a bullet.

“This is not just fluffy dust that’s going to put a little coat on your … hardware,” mentioned Philip Metzger, planetary scientist at College of Central Florida who has researched the consequences of interplanetary mud since 1997. “This is sandblasting, damaging; it’s rocks at high velocity, sand grains, high-velocity gravel.”

The ISRU Pilot Excavator robotic digs in a bin crammed with regolith, a powdered model of rock, throughout testing contained in the Swamp Works on July 28.

(Frank Michaux / NASA)

One of many foremost establishments learning lunar mud and its potential impact on human missions is the Swamp Works, a NASA analysis lab co-founded in 2013 by Metzger, who’s now retired from the company however nonetheless collaborates on some initiatives.

Primarily based at Florida’s Kennedy Area Heart in a boxy constructing as soon as used to coach Apollo astronauts, the lab goals to quickly pioneer and take a look at applied sciences that may permit people to stay and work on different planetary our bodies.

The Artemis 1 mission gained’t land on the moon, however the Orion crew capsule will journey across the moon on a 25-day journey to check the spacecraft’s capabilities earlier than people get onboard subsequent time.

Greater than a decade in the past, Metzger and fellow Swamp Works co-founder Robert P. Mueller tried to warn NASA managers about how mud spewed by rocket exhaust may hinder future lunar missions and the way extra analysis and planning wanted to be performed. They had been disregarded.

A rocket launches in the darkness

NASA’s new moon rocket, Artemis, lifts off from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Area Heart on Nov. 16.

(John Raoux / Related Press)

As we speak, with the Artemis program beginning in full drive, and the company eagerly publicizing the touchdown of the primary lady and first particular person of coloration on the moon as quickly as 2025 lunar mud analysis has exploded.

“Everything we do is 10 years too early,” mentioned Mueller, who additionally serves as senior technologist at Kennedy Area Heart. “When everybody else starts to do it, then you know you’ve done the right thing because it’s being embraced.”

Simulated moon mud — as soon as a analysis commodity peddled amongst NASA and a few college labs — is now commercially produced. NASA just lately hosted a media occasion close to Flagstaff, Ariz., showcasing how astronauts will deal with the moon’s harsh and dusty setting.

The mud drawback is almost as outdated as NASA itself. Again throughout the Apollo program within the Nineteen Sixties and early Seventies, the astronauts complained that they couldn’t put their gloves again on after three days as a result of lunar mud had degraded the seals.

“It’s very sharp, very fine,” mentioned Mueller. “It just grinds up everything.”

To essentially get a way of the issue — and discover methods to fight it — the lab trucked in 120 tons of high-quality, ash-gray powder that was left over from a quarry’s highway pavement manufacturing line.

NASA stumbled on the stuff by happenstance. Throughout a analysis journey close to an Arizona quarry, a Swamp Works researcher stepped right into a pile of powder with flour-like consistency and sank to his waist. Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, who was a part of the journey, took one take a look at the powder, picked it up, kicked it and threw it within the air.

“Yeah, looks like moon dust,” Mueller remembers him saying, earlier than the astronaut walked away.

On the Swamp Works, the simulated moon mud is now housed in a plastic enclosure, 26 ft lengthy and 26 ft large, the place researchers take a look at robotic diggers designed to excavate lunar filth and rocks and mannequin how far rocket engines will spew moon mud throughout takeoff and touchdown. A filtration system prevents extra mud from biking into the remainder of the lab and into researchers’ lungs.

Mueller poked a shovel right into a smaller, clear plastic tent positioned proper subsequent to the bigger enclosure and scooped up one other sort of simulated moon mud, this one discovered by a NASA workforce from Houston. He let it fall off the sting of the spade, and the cake-flour-like materials unfold outward like a low, black cloud.

“You don’t want to breathe that, so I’m going to close this,” he mentioned as he zipped up the plastic door.

A flag hangs in the foreground with a large, dusty plastic bin in the background.

The Swamp Works lab’s regolith bin in 2019.

(Jacob M. Langston / For The Occasions)

The simulated mud particles — like the actual factor — are so high-quality that they will get caught in your lungs. To guard themselves, researchers who go into the big bin observe Occupational Security and Well being Administration guidelines and don protecting fits, full with head coverings, gloves and respirators. Even the lab’s housekeeper sweeping exterior wears a respirator.

Nonetheless, Mueller has discovered mud between his toes after a day within the huge bin.

“Even in the suits,” he mentioned, “it gets everywhere.”

Mueller made the feedback whereas main a tour of the lab in 2019. Three years later, the challenges posed by moon mud persist — and nonetheless can’t be absolutely replicated within the huge bin.

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The larger the rocket, the extra harmful the plume, which means lunar mud, gravel and rocks that get kicked up throughout touchdown or takeoff will journey at considerably larger speeds than throughout the Apollo missions.

Apollo moon touchdown movies don’t do the mud justice. The view from the lunar module’s pilot-side window throughout the 1971 Apollo 15 mission merely reveals haze as mud streaks blow by.

However when Metzger began working pc simulations, the issue turned very clear. Researchers’ present finest estimate is that dust-sized particles alone can have a velocity between 2,236 mph and 6,710 mph. Larger particles journey slower, however they’re nonetheless nothing to sneeze at — gravel-sized ones can journey 67 mph.

A 40-ton lander may scatter mud 50% quicker than the Apollo lander did due to the heavier weight, Metzger mentioned.

“If you had a spacecraft in low lunar orbit and if it happened to come around right at the wrong time … [the dust] could cause significant damage to optics and other sensitive surfaces — so much so that a sensitive instrument could be ruined with just one exposure,” he mentioned.

Dust poses explicit issues for a lunar base. Ideally, future crewed missions would land near a lunar outpost to reduce astronauts’ journey time between the spacecraft and the habitation module. However that may imply repeated landings round worthwhile {hardware}.

A man stands next to a model of a rocket.

Philip Metzger, planetary scientist on the College of Central Florida and a NASA retiree who co-founded the Swamp Works, pictured in 2019.

(Jacob M. Langston / For The Occasions)

“It’s not just one exposure,” Metzger mentioned. “We might end up having 20 to 30 exposures of sandblasting.”

One approach to reduce injury would entail constructing a touchdown pad so rockets would have a clean and soil-stabilized space to function. However how one can get all the building supplies to the moon?

That’s the place the Swamp Works analysis is available in.

Over time, the workforce has experimented with methods to make use of lunar mud and gravel — sure, the identical ones that trigger all these issues — to construct touchdown pads.

The most effective-performing materials is what’s referred to as sintered regolith, a powdered model of rock that’s melted simply sufficient to bond all the pieces collectively however not a lot that it turns into brittle glass. The precise melting temperature varies relying on the kind of mineral, which means the researchers will want a pattern from the potential touchdown spot to make sure their calculations line up.

Within the meantime, they’re engaged on how precisely this sintered regolith can be utilized to construct issues. Throughout the Swamp Works tour, Mueller introduced out what seemed like a squashed cow pie. It was the workforce’s first try at utilizing a 3-D printer to create one thing with their high-quality, powdery simulated moon mud; however within the years since, researchers progressed to a neatly coiled column — a big coiled cone that might function a roof, a wheel and even stone-like pavers that may match collectively.

A man shows an hourglass-like structure holding different types of dust.

Robert P. Mueller, senior technologist and co-founder of the Swamp Works, reveals various kinds of simulated mud in 2019.

(Jacob M. Langston / For The Occasions)

“It is the solution in the long run,” Mueller mentioned just lately of everlasting touchdown pads.

The concept of utilizing assets discovered on planetary our bodies for human habitation is just not new. It’s what spurs concepts of mining the moon or Mars for components that might make rocket propellent, which might permit for extra exploration with out lugging extra gasoline.

Not everybody in NASA is satisfied {that a} touchdown pad created from the moon is the best way to go.

For one, it will be costly and time-consuming to make. And if a mission goes to a number of areas on the moon, it won’t make a lot sense to construct a touchdown pad at every place. That’s why the Swamp Works is also shorter-term concepts, corresponding to a liquid polymer that may be sprayed by a small rover and cured with the ultraviolet gentle from the solar right into a form of non permanent touchdown zone.

“Think of it like an airport with a grass landing strip, versus an airport with a concrete runway,” Mueller mentioned. “It’s a different level of mitigation, and it wouldn’t be permanent — maybe lasts for one or two landings.”

A worker shovels crushed basalt dust into a trash can while wearing a protective hood.

A employee dismantles a statue that was created from simulated moon mud as a tropical storm approached the Swamp Works lab in 2019.

(Jacob M. Langston / For The Occasions)

SpaceX’s Starship lander will try and land on the moon later this decade and not using a touchdown pad by shifting its thrusters to the highest of the rocket to attempt to mitigate the mud spew.

Even additional out, although, the workforce’s analysis has implications past the lunar program. There’s mud on Mars, too.