NASA returns to the moon and must face a familiar enemy: dust

Moon dust

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The moon is incredibly hot, as well as incredibly cold.

There is radiation. Gentle atmosphere. No air to breathe.

If NASA creates a lunar base — a long-term project that was introduced Wednesday with the launch of Artemis I — it will have to address these challenges to human habitation.

It will also have to detect dust.

Lunar dust is made up of tiny, spiky particles — coarse, sharp-edged grains that are a huge problem for astronauts and any man-made object meant to land or take off from the Moon.

For years, NASA scientists have studied how much damage this dust, along with gravel and lunar rocks, can cause, especially when it’s kicked up by rocket engines And it starts jetting faster than a bullet.

“This isn’t just fine dust that’s going to put a little coat on … your instruments,” said Philip Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida who has researched the effects of interplanetary dust since 1997. High speed rocks, sand grains, high speed gravel. “

One of the most important institutions to study lunar dust And its potential impact on human missions is Swamp Works, a NASA research lab co-founded in 2013 by Metzger, who is now retired from the agency but still collaborates on some projects.

Located at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in a box-like building that was once used to train Apollo astronauts, the laboratory aims to create and test technologies that would allow humans to live and work on other planetary bodies.

The Artemis 1 mission will not land on the moon, but the Orion crew capsule will travel around the moon on a 25-day trip to test the spacecraft’s capabilities before humans next get on board.

More than a decade ago, Metzger and fellow Swamp Works co-founder Robert P. Mueller tried to warn NASA managers that dust from rocket exhaust could hinder future lunar missions and how more research and planning should be done. They were banished.

Today, with the Artemis program underway in full force, and the agency eagerly publicized the landing of the first woman and first person of color on the moon once lunar dust research exploded in the year 2025.

“Everything we’re doing is 10 years too early,” said Mueller, who is also a senior technician at Kennedy Space Center. “When everyone else starts doing it, you know you did the right thing because it gets embraced.”

Simulated moon dust — once a research commodity traded between NASA and some university labs — is now being produced commercially. NASA recently hosted a media event near Flagstaff, Arizona, showcasing how astronauts will deal with the moon’s harsh and dusty environment.

The dust problem is almost as old as NASA itself. Back in the Apollo program in the 1960s and early 1970s, astronauts complained that they could not put their gloves on again after three days because lunar dust had fouled the seals.

“It’s very sharp, very good,” Mueller said. “It just grinds everything.”

To really understand the problem — and find ways to combat it — the lab moved 120 tons of the fine, ash-gray powder left over from the quarry’s road paving production line.

NASA came across the stuff by accident. During a research excursion near a quarry in Arizona, a Swamp Works researcher stepped into a pile of powder with a flour-like consistency and sank down to the middle. Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmidt, who was part of the flight, took one look at the powder, picked it up, kicked it, and threw it into the air.

“Yeah, it looks like moon dust,” Mueller recalls saying before the astronaut turned away.

At Swamp Works, simulated moon dust is now housed in a plastic container, 26 feet long by 26 feet wide, where researchers are testing robotic excavators designed to dig up lunar dirt and rock and model how far rocket engines will scatter moon dust during takeoff and landing. The filtration system prevents excess dust from circulating to the rest of the laboratory and into the researchers’ lungs.

Mueller tucked a shovel into a smaller, clear plastic tent located right next to the larger canister and got another type of simulated moon dust, this one that the NASA team from Houston found. He let it fall off the edge of the spade, and the cake-flour-like substance spread outward like a low black cloud.

“You don’t want to breathe this in, so I’ll close that door,” he said, slamming against the plastic door.

Simulated dust particles – like the real thing – are so fine they can get stuck in your lungs. To protect themselves, researchers who go into the big box follow OSHA rules and wear protective suits complete with headgear, gloves, and respirators. Even the lab housekeeper sweeping outside wears a respirator.

However, Mueller found dust between his toes after a day in the big trash can.

“Even in suits, it’s all over the place,” he said.

Mueller made the comments while leading a tour of the lab in 2019. Three years later, the challenges posed by moon dust remain — and still can’t be fully replicated in the big trash bin.

The larger the rocket, the more dangerous the plume, which means that dust, pebbles and lunar rocks kicked up during landing or takeoff will travel at much higher speeds than during the Apollo missions.

The Apollo moon landing videos don’t do justice. The view from the pilot’s side window of the lunar module during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971 shows haze with streaks of dust visible.

But when Metzger started running computer simulations, the problem became all too clear. The researchers’ current best estimate is that dust-sized particles alone can travel between 2,236 mph and 6,710 mph. Larger particles travel at a slower speed, but it’s still no sneeze — pebble-sized particles can travel 67 miles per hour.

Metzger said the 40-ton lander could scatter dust 50 percent faster than the Apollo probes because of the heavier weight.

“If you have a spacecraft in low lunar orbit and if it happens at the wrong time… [the dust] It can cause severe damage to optics and other sensitive surfaces—so much so that a sensitive instrument can be damaged with just one exposure,” he said.

Dust poses particular problems to lunar base. Ideally, future crewed missions would land near a lunar site to reduce astronauts’ travel time between the spacecraft and the settlement module. But that means frequent drop-offs about valuable hardware.

“It’s not just one show,” Metzger said. “We might end up getting 20 to 30 sandblasting exposures.”

One way to reduce the damage is to build a landing pad so that the missiles have a smooth, grounded area in which to operate. But how is all the building materials transported to the moon?

This is where Swamp Works’ search comes in.

Over the years, the team has experimented with ways to use lunar dust and pebbles — yes, the same ones that cause all of these problems — to build landers.

The best-performing material is something called sintered regolith, which is a powdery version of rock melted just enough to bind everything together but not so much that it becomes brittle glass. The exact melting temperature varies depending on the type of mineral, which means the researchers will need a sample from the potential drop site to ensure their calculations are consistent.

In the meantime, they are working out exactly how to use this calcified regolith to build things. During the Swamp Works tour, Mueller brought out what looked like a mashed cow pie. It was the team’s first attempt at using a 3D printer to create something using fine, powdery dust that simulates moon dust; But in the years since, researchers have advanced to a finely rolled shaft—a large, rolled cone that can serve as a roof, a wheel, and even stone-like pavers that can fit together.

“It’s the long-term solution,” Mueller said recently of the permanent landing pads.

The idea of ​​using resources on planetary bodies for human habitation is not new. It’s what spurred moon or Mars mining ideas for elements that could make rocket thrusters, which would allow further exploration without hauling in extra fuel.

Not everyone at NASA is convinced that a lunar lander is the way to go.

First, it would be expensive and time consuming to make. And if the mission is going to be launched to multiple locations on the moon, it may not make sense to build a lander at each location. That’s why Swamp Works is also looking at short-term ideas, such as a liquid polymer that would be sprayed with a small rover and cured with ultraviolet light from the sun into a temporary drop zone.

“Think of it like an airport with a grass runway versus an airport with a concrete runway,” Mueller said. “It’s a different level of mitigation, and it won’t be permanent — maybe it will last for one or two drops.”

The SpaceX spacecraft lander will attempt to land on the moon later in the decade without a landing pad by moving its engines to the top of the rocket in an attempt to smooth out the flying dust.

Even beyond that, the team’s research has implications beyond the lunar program. there soil On Mars, too.

2022 Los Angeles Times.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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