How the Moon’s Dust Could be Deadly

footprint on the moon
Very famous image of a footprint in the lunar soil, part of the 70mm Hasselblad image collection, you can see the dust and rocks that are classed as mature Regolith, Credit: NASA.

The space industry is changing, improving and looking at places to go. Although Mars is the big target for Elon Musk and SpaceX, revisiting the Moon is a big and real challenge that many are aiming for. Whether it is just getting people back there in a safer and cheaper way than Apollo or if it is companies wanting to design Moon bases, it is an active area of interest. Since the Moon landings over half a century ago, researchers have poured over the moon rocks, and images brought back from the mission. More recently though, researchers are looking at a slightly overlooked factor, lunar dust. They were a problem for the astronauts to landed there in the 60’s/70’s and they may pose a problem to future missions where they may spend weeks or months rather than just a few hours/days. The research below shows how the moon moon affects us when we are there, and how it could be very dangerous.

Harrison Schmitt collects samples
NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt retrieving lunar samples using a scoop during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Credit: NASA.

At time of writing, twelve people have been known to walk on the Moon, all between 1968 and 1972. The longest any group spent on the Moon was the crew of Apollo 17 who spent just over three days there. Sleeping in the Lunar Exploration Module, the astronauts tended to collect lots of dust during the EVA’s (Extravehicular Activity). As the moon has a much lower magnetic field it gets blasted with much more radiation from the sun on the surface.  This electrostatically charges the dust particles making it much more likely to stick to the astronauts spacesuits. This linked with the lower gravity of the Moon means that the particles do not drift to the ground as fast like on Earth. Plus when the dust got into the Spacecraft it had no gravity on the trip home. All these factors meant that the astronauts inhaled lots of lunar dust during the mission.

Lunar dust particle
Fine like powder, but sharp like glass. An image of a lunar dust particle. Credit: NASA/JSC.

On earth, dust tends to be fairly round, eroded over time by wind and water. It is also not only rocks, but biological as well,  On the moon, the dust is just rocky and hasn’t been eroded over time as there is no wind or water. The particles are spikey, abrasive and nasty. All twelve of the people who landed on the moon suffered with what NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt described as “lunar hay fever”. They had symptoms like sneezing, nasal congestion and often they took time to fade. Most people know that the astronauts describe the dust as smelling like burnt gunpowder, but don’t know that it made them quite ill. Even the astronauts themselves might not have known the true reasoning behind the illness. Part of the reason is that the lunar dust has silicate in it, often found on planetary bodies with volcanic activity. As well as making the astronauts ill, it was so abrasive that it ate away at layers in the spacesuit boots, and destroyed vacuum seals on sample containers.

Eugene Cernan Hay fever
NASA astronaut Eugene Cernan inside the lunar module, still on the moon after his second moonwalk of Apollo 17. With spacesuit covered in lunar dust he complained of hay fever like symptoms. Credit: NASA.

One study by Stony Brook University School of Medicine, NY looked into the toxicity and DNA damage as a result of exposure to Lunar dust. They attempted to mimic the effect of lunar regolith (the dust) on mammalian cells. They took lung and neuronal cells and then exposed them to materials processed to mimic lunar dust so they could assess survival and genotoxicity. They showed that the soil can cause death to some cells and DNA damage in both neuronal and lung cell lines. Certain forms of the dust had more effect than others, but it was shown that depending on conditions, lunar soil can be cytotoxic (toxic to living cells) and genotoxic (damages genetic information) to both neuronal cells and lung cells. Testing was done by cultures and not tested on real people or animals. Kim Prisk, a pulmonary physiologist from the University of California with over 20 years of experience in human spaceflight is taking part in similar research as Part of an ESA research program. She mentions that “Particles 50 times smaller than a human hair can hang around for months inside your lungs. The longer the particle stays, the greater the chance for toxic effects”. ESA make simulated moon dust from a volcanic region in Germany. See their post on Lunar dust here.

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Final Rokot Launches Sentinel 3B

What Sentinel 3B looks like
Artist’s view of what Sentinel 3B looks like when up in space, sadly there are not many images of it for real! Credit: ESA/ATG Medialab

On April 25th, 2018, at 17:57 UTC a Russian Rokot/Briz KM rocket launched from Site 133, pad 3 from Plesetsk Cosmodrome. Aboard was Sentinel 3B, an Earth observing satellite, part of Europe’s Copernicus environmental monitoring network. This marks the final commercial Rokot Launch, and the final Eurokot mission. There are some more Rockot launches planned for the Russian government though, after which it is reportedly that the repurposed missile launch system will be retired.

Sentinel-3B UC exit from MIK go to Launch pad
The Sentinel 3B being transported to the launchpad by the russian train system.

Sentinel 3B is a Thales Alenia Space Prima Bus satellite, designed to measure ocean temperatures, colour, surface height and the thickness of sea ice. While it is over land it can measure the height of rivers and lakes, monitor wildfires, provide maps of land use and monitor vegetation. The satellite has been designed for many uses. Created for the European Space Agency, the satellite will join Sentinel 3A in orbit to symmetrically monitor the Earth. The data will be primarily fed into the Copernicus Environmental Monitoring Service, where the applications can be developed from to use the data.

Sentinel 3B in integration
An image of the Sentinel 3B satellite just before it was sent off to Russia to be put on the Rokot. Credit ESA

The satellite carries many payloads to track the huge amount of data it is recording, these include:

  • OLCI (Ocean and Land Colour Instrument)
  • SLSTR (Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer)
  • SRAL (Synthetic Aperture Radar Altimeter)
  • MWR (Microwave Radiometer)
  • DORIS
  • LRR (Laser Retroreflector)
  • GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System)

Thales Alenia Space was the prime contractor, responsible for constructing the spacecraft and the SRAL instrument, as well as contributing to the supply of the SLSTR instrument. Many European companies were involved in supplying the SLSTR instrument, including SELEX Galileo, RAL (Rutherford Appleton Laboratory), Jena-Optronik, Thales Alenia Space, ABSL and ESA-ESTEC. EADS CASA Espacio was contracted to provide the MWR instrument. CNES was contracted to provide the DORIS instrument.

Mediterranean Sea
An image of the Mediterranean Sea taken by Sentinel 3A, the partner of Sentinel 3B, they will don the same job on opposite sides of the Earth. Credit: ESA