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Moon dust may create problems for lunar explorers

Oct 23, 2019, 12:12 pm

Let’s admit the fact. We all had dreams of being an astronaut in our childhood and wanted to have a trip to the moon and back. Moon seemed to mesmerize us since childhood. But the reality isn’t as smooth as our childhood dreams.

Moon is actually full of dust that could ruin your perfect image of the Earth’s satellite. Regolith,  the layer of unconsolidated solid material covering the bedrock of the Moon is a matter of concern for the astronauts. During the time between 1969 and the end of 1972, a dozen of them even came across this regolith while they were on a Lunar mission in outer space.

Buzz Aldrin shares his experience of his Lunar mission saying:

The more time you spend there, the more you get covered from helmet to boots with lunar dust. – Buzz Aldrin

Gene Cernan, the Apollo 17 commander recalled the last human mission to the Moon and expressed:

I think dust is probably one of our greatest inhibitors to a nominal operation on the moon. I think we can overcome other physiological or physical or mechanical problems except dust. – Gene Cernan

Coarse nature of the dust

As usual, to satisfy their hunger for knowledge, the Apollo crew members tracked the lunar material inside their moon landers. After touching the dust, they could feel the abrasive nature of it. Surprisingly, it even smelled and tasted like the Moon. In fact, it turned out that the dust has a distinctive smell and that gave rise to the “Apollo aroma”

It also happens to us that certain smell reminds us of someone or something. This “Apollo aroma” also helped the astronauts to recollect the days of their lunar mission.

Buzz Aldrin also recalled his memory of the lunar dust during the Apollo 11 mission. He said that it smelled “like burnt charcoal or similar to the ashes that are in a fireplace, especially if you sprinkle a little water on them.”

The Apollo 17 crew member, Harrison Smith says:

“All I can say is that everyone’s instant impression of the smell was that of spent gunpowder, not that it was ‘metallic’ or ‘acrid.’ Spent gunpowder smell probably was much more implanted in our memories than other comparable smells.”

According to the records, Smith first commented on the gunpowder scent just 7 minutes after the re-pressurization of the Apollo 17 lunar lander was initiated. Smith’s case was recorded as the first case of extraterrestrial hay fever. As the report says, it came pretty fast as he had a significant reaction to moon dust, which caused the cartilage plates in the walls of his nasal chambers to swell.

Astronautical hygiene

People of Earth are aiming to conquer its only satellite and are all ready to set foot on it. A number of lunar missions are listed to happen over the next decade. Countries like the U.K., the United States, the European Union, China, Russia, and India are getting ready for their missions. Along with them world substantial political, economic and financial also want to explore our little Moon.

Humans already have plans to colonize the Moon in the future. Plans are already being made that include extracting water from the lunar surface as well as mining precious rare-earth metals as resources.

Along with this, we will also be addressed to great danger- the lunar dust exposure. John Cain is a United Kingdom-based expert on the hazards of lunar dust exposure and an independent consultant on astronaut health risk management. He was the first one to introduce “astronautical hygiene” as he aims to develop a branch of occupational medicine to control astronaut exposure to hazards in a low-gravity environment. In a Space.com report, he said:

“It is essential that the nature of the lunar dust is known, its effects on the body understood, the routes of exposure identified and the means to reduce exposure are developed”.

Reaction of Dust

The result of Cain’s experiments is so far positive. Through observation, he noticed that that lunar regolith contains several types of reactive dust, including silicon dioxide (50%), iron oxide and calcium oxide (45%), and other oxides (5%). We need to keep it in mind that silicon dioxide has a high toxic level and even it affects us with many life-threatening lung diseases.

Cain explained that there are opportunities on the moon to investigate the exposure health effects to nano-particles in a low-gravity environment, especially lung cellular responses. After a thorough analysis of the particles, we can take measures to control exposure to dust on the moon. Spacesuits with low dust retention may be introduced, even magnetic-separation techniques for the dust or particle beams to remove dust from surfaces may be used as a primary solution.

Cain further added:

“The location of the deposition of dust particles in the lungs will depend on the particle size, with nano-particles penetrating deep into the lungs,” Cain said. “The moon’s lower gravity will have a significant impact on where the nano-particles are deposited and the subsequent exposure health effects. The improved insights into human physiology and medicine, in particular respiration in a low-gravity environment, will have potential benefits on Earth — for example, for developing new means to deliver medicines and for developing new treatments”.

May help in treating skin diseases

According to Cain, the experiments on lunar dust may help us to carry out various treatments of skin damage. He said:

“The investigation of skin cellular changes, due to dust damage in a low-gravity environment, will be invaluable for the cosmetic industry in the development of terrestrial applications to treat skin conditions”.

According to him, if the astronauts commence further explorations on the lunar surface, it may affect them in different ways, including their skin. Even the human race settles down there in the future, they may need some kind of protection to avoid the harsh lunar conditions.

In this case, the development and application of “exposome screening” can come handy.  Cain explained that people with necessary genetic makeup to resist radiation and the long-term impacts of micro-gravity will be at a major advantage for journeying to the moon.

Abrasive finding

Studies show that the lunar dust is full of sharp glass- like particles that are the remains of billions of years of micrometeorite bombardment and a lack of natural weathering of the moon’s near-vacuum environment.

Ryan Kobrick is an assistant professor of spaceflight operations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. He has been studying the moon’s fine-grained particles for quite some time. He said:

“These sharp particles can penetrate spacesuit layers, scratch visors and gauges and clog mechanical mechanisms beyond repair. Future lunar explorers will be faced with similar hardships experienced by the Apollo astronauts, but at a greater magnitude if they plan to stay more than a few days. The fine-grained particles are invisible to the human eye, lurking within the lunar regolith, the meter-thick upper soil layer of the moon”.

Coal-mining parallel to lunar activity

Kobrick showed us an interesting Earth analogy to the issue of hazardous particles on the moon. He pointed out some major risks regarding human health as lunar dust could damage sensitive equipment both inside the habitat and outside on the lunar surface. He said:

“Coal mining has many parallels to lunar activity, and the health risks even relate. As the Apollo moon walkers reentered their lunar module, they brought dust from their suits into the habitable volume, and it coated their skin and equipment. They had minor irritations and possible hay fever symptoms from ingestion.”

He suspects that if humans inhabit on Moon for a long time, it may change the paradigm of clean-room vehicles, especially when lunar mining will be carried on. Kobrick says:

“Human exploration is dependent on being able to traverse foreign environments, but the number of cycles that built-to-last equipment must endure will determine how far our moon booties will take us”

We sincerely hope that a solution will be found in the future so that we can explore our only satellite better than before without being worried about our health issues.

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