On Earth, dust is a nuisance. On Mars, it could be downright deadly.
That's because it's made up of silicates which, if inhaled into the lungs, turn into dangerous chemicals. It's also composed of extremely tiny particles that have been smashed to bits after millions of years of blowing around on a planet with a thin, dry atmosphere. That means even a super-duper airlock might not filter all the pesky particles out.
But as troubling as Martian dust can be to man, it's even more of an issue for machines due to its high concentration of magnetic iron oxide, which loves to coat the surface of the machines, mirrors, and other pieces of equipment we humans enjoy sending over to our red cousin.
To gain a deeper understanding of just how dust and the other surface conditions on Mars will effect equipment used to study the planet in the future, researchers in Spain have engineered a mini version of Mars -- a vacuum chamber that re-creates its pressure, temperature, atmosphere, radiation levels, and yes, dust.
That means the "MARTE Machine" can create an atmosphere with more than 100 times less pressure than our own, temperatures ranging from a chilly -265 degrees Fahrenheit to a scorching 301 degrees Fahrenheit (hotter than it actually ever gets on Mars by far, but hey, it never hurts to overachieve), and a gaseous mix that's 95 percent carbon dioxide.
To create the super-fine Martian dust, the system uses two sieves with openings just 63 microns wide, about the thickness of a human hair. The sieves jiggle around to release the dust, replicating the random pattern that might occur on the Martian surface. This isn't the first time a chamber that mimics the surface of a planet has been used to prepare for interplanetary missions, but this one can distribute dust inside the vacuum it contains (and you thought vacuums were used to get rid of dust, silly).
"We're simulating the effect of the Martian dust -- one of the primary problems for planetary exploration -- to gain a better understanding of how instruments behave when covered in dust," said Jesus Sobrado, the scientist in charge of the machine's technical development in a statement.
By using the chamber's 8-inch-square copper platform, Sobrado and his team will help NASA test out equipment that will be used in the next mission to Mars, termed InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) and scheduled to launch in March of 2016. That mission plans to investigate the deeper structure of the planet including its core, mantle and crust, so it's critical that the machines that carry out this task can handle serious bursts of Martian dust.
And you thought dusting your room was a big deal.