Here on Earth, dust can be annoying. On the moon, it can be a destructive force that threatens to derail human exploration efforts. It's razor sharp and sticks to everything.
A team led by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder has come up with a new way to deal with lunar dust, and it involves using electron beams for cleaning fine particles off surfaces. It sounds sci-fi, but it has a lot of potential for helping NASA astronauts prevent dust disasters on the moon.
The team took aim at a NASA-made moon dust substitute with "a device that shoots out a concentrated (and safe) stream of negatively charged, low-energy particles."
The experiments included spacesuit fabric and glass as surface materials, and took place in a vacuum chamber. It worked surprisingly well. "It literally jumps off," said Benjamin Farr, lead author of a paper on the "dustbuster" published online in the journal Acta Astronautica.
A video released by the university shows the electron beam in action.
Just how serious is the dust problem? NASA put out a call to university students in July seeking new ideas for dealing with the issue.
"It's abrasive and can damage things, including spacesuits, equipment, spacecraft and habitats," NASA said. "Dust can obscure camera lenses, reduce technology performance, distort instrument readings, alter thermal properties and even cause equipment failures."
The challenge of dealing with lunar dust looms as NASA is looking to establish an ongoing human presence on the moon through its Artemis program.
If the space agency is able to stick to its ambitious schedule, it'll be sending humans back to our lunar neighbor for a visit in 2024. NASA is looking in to building surface habitats for longer missions.
Dealing with the dust will likely require a multipronged approach. NASA is also developing a coating technology that could help keep dust off lunar exploration gear.
The electron-beam dustbuster managed to clean off most of the fake moon dust, but there's still room for improvement. "It worked pretty well, but not well enough that we're done," Farr said. The researchers are now aiming to make the technique more effective.
Study coauthor Mihály Horányi at the University of Colorado Boulder is already envisioning a future where astronauts use the lunar dustbuster to get those pesky particles off their spacesuits: "You could just walk into an electron beam shower to remove fine dust," he said. It could become just a routine part of living on the moon.