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Corrosive, Glass Dust on the Moon and Mars

June 14, 2018

 

If you’ve ever been hiking or camping or even picnicking at some point, then you've probably been annoyed by dirt. But at least that dirt wasn't corrosive, poisonous, or made of razor sharp grains of glass, right?

 

There is dust on planets in our Solar System, and it is no joke for astronauts.

 

It caused some unexpectedly serious complications during missions to the Moon in the 60s and 70s, and scientists consider it one of the greatest challenges to sending humans to Mars today.

 

This dust is nothing like the stuff that builds up under your bed. On the Moon, you can blame eons of bombardment by micrometeorites for making lunar dust such a nuisance.

 

For most of its existence, the Moon has been pounded by dust-sized particles, that while tiny, release large amounts of energy. Their high-speed collisions with lunar rocks break apart sediment and soil, which are largely made of silica - the same material that sand and glass are made of.

 

The heat from these impacts is so intense that it can actually vaporize the silica, which cools and condenses back to the soil, effectively coating everything with a thin sheen of sharp glass!

 

These shards are minuscule. Sometimes, the dust is just a few microns wide. But it's what gives us the powdery gray dirt we associate with the Moon today, and Apollo astronauts were not too pleased to discover this dust has a horrible case of static cling.

 

During the daytime, UV rays push electrons out of the dust; at nighttime, solar winds pound those electrons back in, so the dust is always highly charged. It makes for a sticky situation with charged particles that cling to cameras and visors and tools, not to mention jamming the joints of spacesuits.

 

Scientists also worry that shards of glass and minerals in the dust could cause harmful, even fatal lung diseases like silicosis.

 

And there's a similarly unsettling dust situation on Mars, which could be problematic for our future missions, especially since in some ways Martian dust is actually worse on Mars. 

 

Dust is composed mainly of iron oxides, meaning it basically acts like a magnet around anything with a charge. It sticks to electronic devices or anything with a motor. Just take a look at Curiosity!

 

This will be a huge problem for humans, because the dust is a strong oxidizer. It’s corrosive, like bleach - not exactly good for the skin.

 

Curiosity continues to uncover more information about Martian dust that does not bode well for us.

 

Some scientists believe the rover has detected the mineral gypsum on the planet. If inhaled, it could cause a variation of black lung disease. Also, many of the elements sitting on Mars tend to be carcinogenic, which is not a good cocktail when paired with the already-evil dust. 

 

As you can imagine, NASA is worried about all of this, so they're working on ways to best protect us and our machines from lunar and Martian dust.

 

Scientists test the equipment that might go along for the ride using vacuum chambers that simulate the Martian surface, then help the instruments with iron oxide to make sure they hold up.

 

One possible solution is an electronic dust shield that can zap the particles off of instruments in spacesuits by running a small charge through thin wires. NASA has been testing these shields, and whether we're headed back to the Moon, or to Mars, or both, it's going to take a lot more than traditional dust-busting to fix this problem.

 

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Sources: This story was originally published on SciShow Space. I am republishing a lightly edited version on SkyFeed in light of interest in the subject. Green, Hank. "Astronauts' Arch-Enemy: Dust." SciShow Space, YouTube. 17 March 2015. Web video.

Citation: Rovira, Lia N. "Corrosive, Glass Dust on the Moon and Mars." SkyFeed. 13 June 2018. Web article.

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