Moon Dust Could ‘Engulf’ Lunar Rovers — Especially During Sunrise and Sunset

That video above is perhaps the ultimate off-roading adventure: taking a rover out for a spin on the moon. Look past the cool factor for a minute, though, and observe the dust falling down around that astronaut.

The crew aboard Apollo 16 (as well as other Apollo missions) had a lot of problems with regolith. It got into everything. It was so abrasive that it wore away some equipment in days. It smelled funny and probably wasn’t all that good to breathe in, either. Many have said that when we return to the moon, dust must be dealt with for long-term survival.

Things could get worse at sunrise and sunset. One new study (not peer-reviewed yet) finds a “serious risk” that rovers “could be engulfed in dust.” That’s because lunar dust appears to have electrostatic properties that, somehow, is triggered by changes in sunlight. (NASA is already doing some serious investigation into this matter using its orbiting missions.)

What the researchers did, in conjunction with ONERA (The French Center of Aerospace Research) was conduct simulations for two types of lunar regions — the terminator (the day/night boundary) and an area experiencing full sunlight.

“Dust particles were introduced into the simulation over a period of time, when both the surface and the rover were in electrical equilibrium,” the Royal Astronomical Society stated.

“In both the test cases, dust particles travel upwards above the height of the rover, but results suggest that they move in different directions. On the day side, the particles are pushed outwards and on the terminator the dust travels upwards and inwards above the rover, regrouping in the vacuum above it. The terminator simulation began with a region void of dust which was later filled by lunar dust particles.”

The bottom line? A lunar rover could accumulate a significant amount of dust on the moon, especially if it’s sitting at or near the terminator. This could be addressed by using dome-shaped rovers that would see the dust fall off, added lead author Farideh Honary, a physicist at the University of Lancaster, in a statement.

The work was presented at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting today (July 3). A paper has been submitted to the Journal for Geophysical Research, so more details should be forthcoming if and when it is published.

Credit: Royal Astronomical Society

Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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