When it comes to returning to the Moon or traveling to Mars, astronauts have everything from the inhospitable conditions to potential brain damage to contend with. But there’s another, perhaps unexpected, danger lurking out there. Dust.
Dust might seem like a trivial threat, but a recent study found that lunar dust can kill human cells, alter our DNA, and increase our chance of developing cancer. Moondust is also incredibly sticky and finds its way into even the smallest of crevices, clogging up vital equipment.
Martian dust may act similarly, so engineers from the Boeing Company are working on a solution – self-cleaning spacesuits. These suits would repel dust, preventing it from sticking to the astronauts, blocking their line of vision, and hitchhiking into spacecraft.
“Lunar dust proved to be troublesome during the Apollo missions,” the engineers wrote in a paper published in the journal Acta Astronautica. “The powdery dust got into everything, abrading spacesuit fabric, clogging seals and other critical equipment. Even inside the lunar module, Apollo astronauts were exposed to this dust after they removed their dust-coated spacesuits.
“Consequently, NASA has identified dust as a critical environmental challenge to overcome for future planetary surface missions characterized by dusty environments.”
On our planet, dust particles are smoothed out thanks to erosion by water and wind. But the Moon has an incredibly thin atmosphere, so the dust there remains abrasive. And as it's charged with static electricity from solar wind and UV radiation, it'll stick to pretty much anything. As the Red Planet has weather, the dust on Mars isn’t as coarse as it is on the Moon, but it is still fairly abrasive. An astronaut certainly wouldn't want to get caught up in one of the planet’s huge dust storms.
The team notes that various technologies for preventing dust contamination have already been put forward, but they're designed for flat, rigid surfaces, like solar panels. The challenge here was applying the ability to repel dust to a flexible, wearable material that could be used in a spacesuit.
The new system has been dubbed SPacesuit Integrated Carbon nanotube Dust Ejection/Removal, or SPIcDER for short – a nod to Spiderman. It’s made up of flexible carbon nanotube fibers, energized by an electric field. This electric field allows the fibers to repel dust via a process known as electrophoresis.
The team successfully tested out their creation – so far a pressurized knee joint section of a spacesuit – using simulations of the dust conditions on both the Moon and Mars. Next, they plan to test their dust-detesting suits in space.
[H/T: New Scientist]