Ever since Neil Armstrong took a small step on the moon, lunar dust has proven to be a messy problem for astronauts, coating their space suits in a powdery film that’s hard to clean and can be unhealthy if inhaled.
However, scientists have found a new solution that may finally leave this problem in the dust.
For their experiment, researchers from Washington State University (WSU) dressed the Barbies in makeshift spacesuits constructed of materials similar to those used by NASA. Next, the team blasted the dolls with liquid nitrogen to test how well the cryogenic fluid could remove lunar dust – or, in this case, volcanic ash collected during the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Nearby Helens, the consistency of which is similar to lunar dust – from gear. (It is illegal to possess or sell lunar materials (opens in a new tab).)
Related: How will NASA deal with the lunar dust problem for the Artemis lunar landings?
They found that spraying dolls wearing spacesuits with liquid nitrogen not only removed more than 98% of the moondust substitute, but also caused little or no damage to the Kevlar-like suit material. This turned out to be a better solution than the older methods; Apollo program astronauts reportedly use brushes to sweep the highly abrasive material from their suits after the moonwalk, which would eventually degrade the material, according to the team’s new study, published online Feb. 10 in the journal Acta Astronautics (opens in a new tab).
Not only is lunar dust annoying and sticky – researchers have compared it to cleaning up a spilled box of static-charged packing peanuts – but coming into contact with it can prove toxic to human cells (opens in a new tab) and can lead to “lunar hay fever,” an illness that causes watery eyes, sore throats, and sneezing. It’s not exactly something astronauts would want to face on an already risky mission to the Moon.
“Moon dust…is abrasive, electrostatically charged, and it gets everywhere,” lead author Ian Wells, a mechanical engineering student at WSU, told Live Science. “It can seep into the seals of spacesuits and render them unusable, as too much dust prevents them from sealing properly. It can also have a negative impact on the lungs (opens in a new tab) of anyone who encounters it, because it’s like breathing crushed fiberglass.”
The liquid nitrogen experiment worked thanks to a phenomenon known as the Leidenfrost effect, which occurs when water hits a surface hotter than its boiling point, causing the drop to “slide over the surface”.
“When liquid nitrogen boils, it expands 800 times, and it’s almost like a small explosion when it hits the surface of a hot material,” said co-author Jacob Leachman, associate professor at WSU. School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. Science. “Because it explodes and expands so much, it can push those particles away from the surface.”
Or, in this case, the liquid nitrogen blew the moondust surrogate almost completely out of the Barbies’ spacesuits.
The team presented their findings to NASA to help the agency Artemis lunar program, winning the 2021 space agency award Breakthrough, Innovative and Breakthrough (BIG) Ideas Challenge (opens in a new tab).
“We used the doll primarily because it’s a one-sixth scale person,” Wells said. “However, it was also chosen as the objective of the Artemis mission [is] to send the first woman and person of color to the moon, and we wanted our project to reflect that commitment to diversity.”
Originally published on Live Science (opens in a new tab).
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