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Solutions for cosmic dust damage

on 26 October 2022

As the world’s space agencies prepare to return to the Moon and explore the planets, space materials engineers have been getting to grips with a challenging enemy: dust. The abrasive, talcum-like dust enshrouding the Moon and other planetary surfaces can obscure surfaces, wear away at coatings and clog space mechanisms.

For ESA, dust contamination is an urgent issue for coming missions such as the international lunar Gateway – a planned station in lunar orbit including European modules, which will serve as a basecamp for sojourns down to the Moon’s surface – and the Argonaut European Large Logistics Lander, EL3, intended to transport cargo for lunar settlers, which would remain on the Moon for prolonged periods.

ESA is also responsible for the robotic Sample Transfer Arm of the international Mars Sample Return campaign. This mission, of which Romania is also a part, has the crucial role of taking samples from Mars rovers to place them on an ascent rocket for return to Earth. Dust could potentially interfere with the 2.5-m-long arm’s mechanisms.

The Agency’s materials engineers met with their international counterparts at the recent ISMSE-13/ICPMSE-15 Materials in the Space Environment conference at Leiden in the Netherlands, with dust control among the major themes under discussion.

They presented research including a dedicated Planetary Dust Simulation Facility – currently taking shape at ESA’s ESTEC technology centre in the Netherlands – which will be used to investigate charging effects and dust-induced thermal and optical shifts in surfaces. They have also been evaluating the effects of dust on spacesuit textiles and with actual moondust worth more than its weight in gold, they are evaluating the most suitable lunar simulants for test purposes.

James Gaier, retired NASA scientist who worked on the Apollo programme, chaired a dedicated panel discussion at the conference. He noted that “Lunar dust is present all across the Moon, created by the steady bombardment of micrometeorites pulverising the rocky surface into fine particles. Unlike terrestrial dust it has never been weathered by water or wind, so that even microscopic particles still maintain edges of razor sharpness. And the unfiltered energy of lunar sunshine can impart the dust with serious static cling.”

More details here.

Image credit: ESA–ATG