The moon is incredibly hot and also incredibly cold.
There is radiation. A thin atmosphere. No air to breathe.
If NASA ever builds a lunar base — a long-term project pushed ahead with Wednesday’s launch of Artemis I — it must address these human habitation challenges.
It also needs to figure out the dust.
Lunar dust consists of gnarled little particles – jagged and sharp-edged grains that become a major problem for astronauts and pretty much any man-made object intended to land on or take off from the moon.
NASA scientists have spent years studying how much damage this dust could do along with lunar gravel and rocks, particularly when blasted up by rocket engines and traveling at speeds faster than a bullet.
“It’s not just fluffy dust that’s going to coat your … hardware a little,” said Philip Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida who has been studying the effects of interplanetary dust since 1997. “This is sandblasting, damaging; It’s high speed rocks, sand grains, high speed gravel.”
One of the leading institutions studying lunar dust and its potential impact on human missions is Swamp Works, a NASA research lab co-founded in 2013 by Metzger, who has since retired from the agency but still works on some projects.
Located at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in a boxy building once used to train Apollo astronauts, the lab aims to rapidly pioneer and test technology that would allow humans to live on other planetary bodies and to work.
The Artemis 1 mission will not land on the moon, but the Orion crew capsule will travel around the moon on a 25-day trip to test the spacecraft’s capabilities before humans next board.
More than a decade ago, Metzger and Swamp Works co-founder Robert P. Mueller tried to warn NASA executives about how dust emitted by rocket exhaust could hamper future lunar missions and that more research and planning needed to be done. They’ve been brushed off.
Today, with the Artemis program in full swing and the agency eagerly announcing the landing of the first woman and first colored person on the moon, once lunar dust research has exploded in 2025.
“Everything we do is 10 years early,” said Mueller, who is also a senior technologist at Kennedy Space Center. “When everyone else starts doing it, you know you did the right thing because it’s accepted.”
Simulated lunar dust – once a research commodity peddled by NASA and some university labs – is now being produced commercially. NASA recently hosted a media event near Flagstaff, Arizona, showing how astronauts will deal with the moon’s harsh and dusty environment.
The dust problem is almost as old as NASA itself. During the Apollo program in the 1960s and early 1970s, astronauts complained that they couldn’t put their gloves back on after three days because lunar dust had damaged the seals.
“It’s very sharp, very fine,” said Müller. “It just grinds everything up.”
To really get a feel for the problem — and find ways to combat it — the lab shipped 120 tons of fine, ash-gray powder left over from a quarry’s paving production line.
NASA stumbled upon this stuff by accident. During a research trip near a quarry in Arizona, a Swamp Works researcher stepped into a pile of flour-like powder and sank waist-deep. Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, who was part of the journey, took one look at the powder, then picked it up, kicked it and threw it in the air.
“Yeah, looks like moondust,” Mueller recalled saying before the astronaut walked away.
At the Swamp Works, the simulated lunar dust is now housed in a 26-foot-long and 26-foot-wide plastic case where researchers are testing robotic excavators designed to dig up lunar debris and rocks, and modeling how far rocket engines spew lunar dust during launch and Landing. A filtration system prevents excess dust from entering the rest of the lab and the researchers’ lungs.
Mueller stuck a shovel in a smaller, clear plastic tent that was right next to the larger enclosure and scooped up a different type of simulated lunar dust found by a Houston-based NASA team. He dropped it from the edge of the spade, and the cake-dusty material spread out like a low, black cloud.
“You don’t want to breathe this, so I’m going to close this,” he said as he closed the plastic door.
Like the real ones, the simulated dust particles are so fine that they can get stuck in your lungs. To protect themselves, researchers entering the big bin follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations and don protective suits with hats, gloves and respirators. Even the lab’s housekeeper who sweeps outside wears a respirator.
Still, after a day in the big bin, Mueller found dust between his toes.
“Even in the suits,” he said, “it gets everywhere.”
Mueller made the comments while leading a tour of the lab in 2019. Three years later, the challenges posed by lunar dust persist – and still cannot be fully replicated in the large container.
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The larger the rocket, the more dangerous the cloud, ie lunar dust, gravel and stones that are thrown up when landing or taking off move at significantly higher speeds than on the Apollo missions.
Apollo moon landing videos don’t do the dust justice. The view from the lunar module’s pilot’s window during the 1971 Apollo 15 mission simply shows haze as dust streaks pass.
But when Metzger started doing computer simulations, the problem became very clear. The researchers’ current best estimate is that dust-sized particles alone can have speeds of between 2,236 mph and 6,710 mph. Larger particles move slower, but they’re still not to be scoffed at — gravel-sized ones can travel 67 miles per hour.
A 40-ton lander could scatter dust 50% faster than the Apollo lander because of its heavier weight, Metzger said.
“If you had a spacecraft in low lunar orbit and it happened to come by at exactly the wrong time… [the dust] could severely damage optics and other delicate surfaces – so much so that a delicate instrument could be ruined with just one exposure,” he said.
Dust poses particular problems for a lunar base. Ideally, future manned missions would land near a lunar outpost to minimize astronaut travel time between the spacecraft and the habitation module. But that would mean repeated landings around valuable hardware.
“It’s not just an exposure,” Metzger said. “We might end up with 20 to 30 sandblasting exposures.”
One way to minimize damage would be to build a landing pad so missiles have a smooth and ground stabilized area to operate in. But how do you get to the moon with all the building materials?
This is where the Swamp Works research comes in.
Over the years, the team has experimented with ways to use lunar dust and gravel — yes, the same ones that cause all these problems — to build landing pads.
The most powerful material is what’s known as sintered regolith, a powdered version of rock that’s melted just enough to bind everything together, but not so much that it turns into brittle glass. The exact melting temperature varies by type of mineral, meaning researchers need a sample from the potential landing site to ensure their calculations match.
In the meantime, they’re working on how exactly this sintered regolith can be used to build things. During the Swamp Works tour, Mueller came out with what appeared to be mashed cow pie. It was the team’s first attempt at using a 3-D printer to create something with their fine, powdery simulated moondust; But in the years since, researchers have evolved into a neatly coiled pillar — a large coiled cone that could serve as a roof, a wheel, and even rock-like cobblestones to fit together.
“That’s the solution in the long run,” Mueller said recently about permanent landing pads.
The idea of using resources on planetary bodies for human habitation is not new. It spurs ideas of mining the Moon or Mars for elements that could make rocket fuel, which would allow further exploration without lugging extra fuel.
Not everyone at NASA is convinced that a landing pad from the moon is the way to go.
For one thing, it would be expensive and time-consuming to manufacture. And when a mission goes to multiple locations on the moon, it might not make much sense to build a landing pad in each location. That’s why the Swamp Works is also exploring shorter-term ideas, such as a liquid polymer that’s sprayed from a small rover and cured with the sun’s ultraviolet light to form a kind of temporary landing zone.
“Think of it like an airport with a grass runway as opposed to an airport with a concrete runway,” Mueller said. “It’s a different level of mitigation, and it wouldn’t be permanent — maybe it lasts a landing or two.”
SpaceX’s Starship lander will attempt a landless landing on the moon later this decade, moving its thrusters to the top of the rocket to try to mitigate dust ejection.
Even further afield, however, the team’s research has implications beyond the lunar program. There is dust on Mars too.