ESA seeking dust-proof materials for lunar return

ESA seeking dust-proof materials for lunar return
Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt collecting a soil sample, his spacesuit coated with dust. NASA image AS17-145-22157. Credit: NASA

When humans return to the moon, they’ll have formidable challenge lying in wait: lunar dust. The talcum-like lunar regolith is considered the biggest operational problem facing moon colonists. Within a few days of dust exposure, Apollo spacesuits suffered obscured visors, clogged mechanisms and eroded suit layers. So an ESA team is looking into novel material options to serve as the basis of future spacesuits or protect rovers or fixed infrastructure.

“The idea came up that as ESA’s going back to the moon we should look into harnessing the many innovations in the materials field since the Apollo spacesuits were designed, more than half a century ago,” remarks ESA materials and processes engineer Malgorzata Holynska.

“So while we are not developing a new spacesuit at this time, we are looking into selecting candidate materials such a suit might use—as well as protective covers for rovers or fixed machinery and infrastructure—and performing some state-of-the-art testing to see how they stand up against simulated lunar conditions, particularly lunar dust.”

moon of dust

As Apollo 12 Commander Pete Conrad noted: “I think probably one of the most aggravating, restricting facets of lunar surface exploration is the dust and its adherence to everything no matter what kind of material, whether it be skin, suit material, metal, no matter what it be and its restrictive friction-like action to everything it gets on.”

That turned out to include spacesuits: “Suit integrities did stay good, but there’s no doubt in my mind that with a couple more EVA’s something could have ground to a halt. In the area where the lunar boots fitted on the suits, we wore through the outer garment and were beginning to wear through the Mylar.”

More recently, China’s Yutu-1 rover is believed to have been immobilized during its second day on the moon by lunar dust clogging its moving parts.

ESA seeking dust-proof materials for lunar return
A close-up of Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad’s dust-coated glove. Credit: NASA

Violent origins

Lunar dust is present all across the moon, created by the steady bombardment of micrometeorites smashes 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.

“Depending on its area of origin the dust might have very different chemical and abrasive characteristics, with its precise properties depending on the selected landing site—which is another factor of concern,” notes ESA structural engineer Shumit Das.

“One of the key findings from Apollo was that the abrasion effects of the lunar regolith would be the major limiting factor in returning to the moon. We want to overcome that and enable spacesuits that could be used for many more spacewalks than the few performed per Apollo landing—up to 2,500 hours of surface activities is our assumption.”

ESA seeking dust-proof materials for lunar return
Scanning electron microscopic close-ups