Lower Gravity Will Help Lunar Dust Get Deep Into Astronaut Lungs

Article written: 13 May , 2008
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by



Dusting the house might be a chore here on Earth, but when astronauts return to the Moon, they’ll need to be neat freaks. Their lives might depend on it! According to researchers at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, the health of lunar astronauts will depend on how well they can keep the fine lunar dust out of the air.

During the Apollo lunar missions in the 1960s and 1970s, astronauts realized how much this lunar dust was a hassle to their exploration of the Moon. The tiny particles clung to everything, and when the astronauts returned to their lander, it made a real nuisance. By the end of their missions, the astronauts said there was so much dust in their vehicles that they could smell it.

There are no known illnesses associated with the dust today; but the astronauts just weren’t exposed to it long enough. But scientists studying it back on Earth found that the dust was very similar to fresh-fractured quartz, which is highly toxic to humans. When astronauts return to the Moon in the next decade, they could be on the Moon for months, and exposed to much larger quantities of the dust.

And there’s another problem. Because of the reduced gravity on the Moon, and the tiny size of the dust particles, our respiratory system might not be able to handle the particles as well as we do on Earth. Here’s Dr. Kim Prisk, an adjunct professor in the Department of Medicine at the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego:

“In the moon’s fractional gravity, particles remain suspended in the airways rather than settling out, increasing the chances of distribution deep in the lung, with the possible consequence that the particles will remain there for a long period of time.”

To conduct their research, the scientists are taking participants on NASA’s Microgravity Research Aircraft. This is a special aircraft that flies on a parabolic path. At the height of each arc, people on board the aircraft experience a brief period of low gravity, or even weightlessness.

When the gravity is lowered to the same as the Moon, the participants breath in small particles, which the researchers then study as they move down the airways. They want to know how many end up in the lungs. The deeper the dust goes into the lungs, the more dangerous it’ll be.

Again, here’s Dr. Prisk:

“With the reduced-gravity flights, we’re improving the process of assessing environmental exposure to inhaled particles. We’ve learned that tiny particles (less than 2.5 microns) which are the most significant in terms of damage, are greatly affected by alterations in gravity.”

The next step will be to figure out how to limit the amount of exposure to the dust. The more dangerous the dust is, the more complicated an engineering task it will be to keep it all out.

Original Source: NSBRI News Release


9 Responses

  1. Nat says

    Wouldn’t this problem be solved if the astronauts wore some sort of small, lightweight air filters all the time?

  2. Curtis says

    I agree with Nat on this one. From working in HAZMAT for almost 10 years, I know the technology is there to successfully decontaminate individuals, and it is not that big of a stretch to take it to the moon.

  3. David says

    Sounds like the potential lung damage would be similar to pulmonary fibrosis. The particles would act as an intense abrasive, causing irreversible scarring of the bronchial sacs. Wouldn’t it be prudent to take Nat’s idea a step further and create some sort of decontamination chamber before entering the living space?

  4. robbb says

    nice. Sounds like you guys just solved the problem! Seriously. Somebody give NASA a ring a ding ding.

  5. owen says

    I agree completely with Nat its a good idea thats not too complicated.

  6. alphonso richardson says

    I agree with you guys! Does NASA check this website?
    I’m surprised they didn’t speak to HAZMAT personnel.

  7. Steve says

    My guess it that, like everything else, it comes down to cost and, to a lesser extend, comfort. Adding filters or a dust-removing airlock is an additional cost and weight, which in this case equals cost. As for the comfort, I imagine it is bearable to wear a hazmat suit for several hours but it would be annoying to have to wear some respiratory filter 24/7 (or in the case of the moon 28/28). Although the solution seems simple, I believe there are farther reaching issues involved.

  8. vA gENT says

    i GUESS THE ILLNESS DEV ELOPED BY THE LUNAR DUST WILL CAUSE “MOONATOSIS”. JUST WONDER HOW THE GOVERNMENT WILL COVER THIS AS AN OCCUPATIONAL DISEASE.

  9. Frank says

    I think the static charge on the dust can be used to our advantage. For the space-suited lunarnaut I think a mylar-type coverall going from the top of the boot sole to the helmet and down the arms to the gloves and secured to seal off the interior of the coverall would provide several things for the lunarnaut. The smooth metalized surface, lacking a warp and weft of woven fabric, would provide the least surface area for dust to adhere. It would provide another layer of solar radiation protection because of its reflective surface. It would also provide a possible dust removal method that could be simple and effective.

    Upon entering the airlock and as the air pressure returns, the dust-covered lunarnaut would connect low-voltage electrodes to the mylar-like coveralls and induce a current that alternates between negative and positive. At the same time, the lunarnaut would stand in a high-tech ‘boot polisher’ that would scrub the soles and suck the dust down to a hepafilter to be trapped and contained. As the air pressure in the airlock builds, an air shower, not unlike what cleanroom technicians use prior to entering the sealed work area, would blast the exterior of the mylar-like coveralls. As the voltage goes back and forth the charge on the dust would cause it to be repelled as the polarity flips back and forth. The airshower would blow the dust away from the lunarnauts and be sucked toward a hepafilter to be trapped. It’s possible that the entire airlock might have to have a polarity flip to keep the dust from statically adhering to inside surfaces.

    A minute or so of this and the airlock area and the lunarnauts should be dust-free and ready to get out of their moonsuits.

    Regards,

    Frank

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