The Moon is the most studied object in space. But our nearest neighbour still holds a few mysteries. One of those mysteries is the lunar swirls. These strange serpentine features are brighter than their surroundings and are much younger. They’re not associated with any specific composition of lunar rock, and they appear to overlay other surface features like craters and ejecta.
Scientists have been puzzling over the swirls for decades, and with lunar outposts looming as a real possibility, understanding these swirls takes on new importance. Now a new study finds a link between lunar topography and the swirls.
Let’s not sugarcoat it. Exploring the Moon is not for the faint of heart! It’s an airless body, which means there is no atmosphere, the surface temperatures are extreme, and there’s lots of radiation. The low gravity also means you can never really walk on the surface and have to bounce around in a bulky spacesuit until you fall over. And you can bet your bottom dollar people will make a supercut of the footage someday (see below). Then there’s that awful moondust (aka. lunar regolith), which is electrostatically charged and sticks to EVERYTHING!
Looking to take advantage of this, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began testing a new concept for a hovering rover that harnesses the Moon’s natural charge to levitate across the surface. On the Moon, this surface charge is strong enough to levitate moon dust more than 1 meter (3.3 ft) above the surface. With support from NASA, this research could lead to a new type of robotic exploration vehicle that will help astronauts explore the Moon in the coming years.
In the coming years, NASA is going back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. Rather than being a “footprints and flags” operation, Project Artemis is intended to be the first step in creating a sustainable human presence on the Moon. Naturally, this presents a number of challenges, not the least of which has to do with lunar regolith (aka. moondust). For this reason, NASA is investigating strategies for mitigating this threat.
It’s been over forty years since the Apollo Program wrapped up and the last crewed mission to the Moon took place. But in the coming years and decades, multiple space agencies plan to conduct crewed missions to the lunar surface. These includes NASA’s desire to return to the Moon, the ESA’s proposal to create an international Moon village, and the Chinese and Russian plans to send their first astronauts to the Moon.
For this reason, a great deal of research has been dedicated to what the health effects of long-duration missions to the Moon may be – particularly the effects a lower gravity environment would have on the human body. But in a recent study, a team of pharmacologists, geneticists and geoscientists consider how being exposed to lunar dust could have a serious effect on future astronauts’ lungs.
Because it has no atmosphere, the Moon’s surface has been pounded by meteors and micrometeroes for billions of years, which have created a fine layer of surface dust known as regolith. In addition, the Moon’s surface is constantly being bombarded by charged particles from the Sun, which cause the lunar soil to become electrostatically charged and stick to clothing.
Indications that lunar dust could cause health problems first emerged during the Apollo missions. After visiting the Moon, astronauts brought lunar soil back with them into the command module as it clung to their spacesuits. After inhaling the dust, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt described having symptoms akin to hay fever, which including sneezing, watery eyes and a sore throat.
While the symptoms were short-lived, researchers wanted to know what the long-term effects of lunar dust could be. There have also been indications that exposure to lunar dust could be harmful based on research that has shown how breathing dust from volcanic eruptions, dust storms and coal mines can cause bronchitis, wheezing, eye irritation and scarring of lung tissue.
Previous research has also shown that dust can cause damage to cells’ DNA, which can cause mutations and eventually lead to cancer. For these reasons, Caston and her colleagues were well-motivated to see what harmful effects lunar soil could have on the human body. For the sake of their study, the team exposed human lung cells and mouse brain cells to samples of simulated lunar soil.
These simulants were created by using dust samples from Earth that resemble soil found on the Moon’s lunar highlands and volcanic plains, which were then ground to a fine powder. What they found was that up to 90% of human lung cells and mouse neurons died when exposed to the dust samples. The simulants also caused significant DNA damage to mouse neurons, and the human lung cells were so effectively damaged that it was impossible to measure any damage to the cells’ DNA.
The results show that breathing lunar dust (even in minute quantities) could pose a serious health hazard to astronauts traveling to any airless bodies in the future. This includes not only the Moon, but also Mars and other terrestrial bodies like Mercury. Until now, this health hazard has been largely overlooked by space agencies seeking to understand the long-term health risks of space travel.
“There are risks to extraterrestrial exploration, both lunar and beyond, more than just the immediate risks of space itself,” said Rachel Caston. According to Bruce Demple, a biochemist at Stony Brook University School of Medicine and senior author of the new study, their results (coupled with the experience of the Apollo astronauts) indicate that prolonged exposure to lunar dust could impair airway and lung function.
What’s worse, he also indicated that if the dust induces inflammation in the lungs, it could increase the risk of more serious diseases like cancer. “If there are trips back to the Moon that involve stays of weeks, months or even longer, it probably won’t be possible to eliminate that risk completely,” he said.
Ergo, any attempts to mitigate the risks of mounting crewed missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond will have to take into account exposure to not only low-gravity and radiation, but also electrostatically charged soil. Aside from limiting the duration of missions and the number of EVAs, certain protective counter-measures may need to be incorporated into any plans for long-duration missions.
One possibility is to have astronauts cycle through an airlock that would also spray their suits with water or a compound designed to neutralize the charge, thus washing them clean of dust before they enter the main habitat. Otherwise, astronauts working in the International Lunar Village (or any other off-world habitat for that matter) may have to wear breathing masks the entire time they are not in a spacesuit.
When you’re walking around on soft ground, do you notice how your feet leave impressions? Perhaps you’ve tracked some of the looser earth in your yard into the house on occasion? If you were to pick up some of these traces – what we refer to as dirt or soil – and examine them beneath a microscope, what would you see?
Essentially, you would be seeing the components of what is known as regolith, which is a collection of particles of dust, soil, broken rock, and other materials found here on Earth. But interestingly enough, this same basic material can be found in other terrestrial environments as well – including the Moon, Mars, other planets, and even asteroids.
The term regolith refers to any layer of material covering solid rock, which can come in the form of dust, soil or broken rock. The word is derived from the combination of two Greek words – rhegos (which means “blanket”) and lithos (which means “rock).
On Earth, regolith takes the form of dirt, soil, sand, and other components that are formed as a result of natural weathering and biological processes. Due to a combination of erosion, alluvial deposits (i.e. moving water deposing sand), volcanic eruptions, or tectonic activity, the material is slowly ground down and laid out over solid bedrock.
It can be made up of clays, silicates, various minerals, groundwater, and organic molecules. Regolith on Earth can vary from being essentially absent to being hundreds of meters thick. Its can also be very young (in the form of ash, alluvium, or lava rock that was just deposited) to hundreds of millions of years old (regolith dating to the Precambrian age occurs in parts of Australia).
On Earth, the presence of regolith is one of the important factors for most life, since few plants can grow on or within solid rock and animals would be unable to burrow or build shelter without loose material. Regolith is also important for human beings since it has been used since the dawn of civilization (in the form of mud bricks, concrete and ceramics) to build houses, roads, and other civil works.
The difference in terminology between “soil” (aka. dirt, mud, etc.) and “sand” is the presence of organic materials. In the former, it exists in abundance, and is what separates regolith on Earth from most other terrestrial environments in our Solar System.
The surface of the Moon is covered with a fine powdery material that scientists refer to it as “lunar regolith”. Nearly the entire lunar surface is covered with regolith, and bedrock is only visible on the walls of very steep craters.
The Moon regolith was formed over billions of years by constant meteorite impacts on the surface of the Moon. Scientists estimate that the lunar regolith extends down 4-5 meters in some places, and even as deep as 15 meters in the older highland areas.
When the plans were put together for the Apollo missions, some scientists were concerned that the lunar regolith would be too light and powdery to support the weight of the lunar lander. Instead of landing on the surface, they were worried that the lander would just sink down into it like a snowbank.
However, landings performed by robotic Surveyor spacecraft showed that the lunar soil was firm enough to support a spacecraft, and astronauts later explained that the surface of the Moon felt very firm beneath their feet. During the Apollo landings, the astronauts often found it necessary to use a hammer to drive a core sampling tool into it.
Once astronauts reached the surface, they reported that the fine moon dust stuck to their spacesuits and then dusted the inside of the lunar lander. The astronauts also claimed that it got into their eyes, making them red; and worse, even got into their lungs, giving them coughs. Lunar dust is very abrasive, and has been noted for its ability to wear down spacesuits and electronics.
The reason for this is because lunar regolith is sharp and jagged. This is due to the fact that the Moon has no atmosphere or flowing water on it, and hence no natural weathering process. When the micro-meteoroids slammed into the surface and created all the particles, there was no process for wearing down its sharp edges.
The term lunar soil is often used interchangeably with “lunar regolith”, but some have argued that the term “soil” is not correct because it is defined as having organic content. However, standard usage among lunar scientists tends to ignore that distinction. “Lunar dust” is also used, but mainly to refer to even finer materials than lunar soil.
As NASA is working on plans to send humans back to the Moon in the coming years, researchers are working to learn the best ways to work with the lunar regolith. Future colonists could mine minerals, water, and even oxygen out of the lunar soil, and use it to manufacture bases with as well.
Landers and rovers that have been sent to Mars by NASA, the Russians and the ESA have returned many interesting photographs, showing a landscape that is covered with vast expanses of sand and dust, as well as rocks and boulders.
Compared to lunar regolith, Mars dust is very fine and enough remains suspended in the atmosphere to give the sky a reddish hue. The dust is occasionally picked up in vast planet-wide dust storms, which are quite slow due to the very low density of the atmosphere.
The reason why Martian regolith is so much finer than that found on the Moon is attributed to the flowing water and river valleys that once covered its surface. Mars researchers are currently studying whether or not martian regolith is still being shaped in the present epoch as well.
It is believed that large quantities of water and carbon dioxide ices remain frozen within the regolith, which would be of use if and when manned missions (and even colonization efforts) take place in the coming decades.
Mars moon of Deimos is also covered by a layer of regolith that is estimated to be 50 meters (160 feet) thick. Images provided by the Viking 2 orbiter confirmed its presence from a height of 30 km (19 miles) above the moon’s surface.
Asteroids and Outer Solar System:
The only other planet in our Solar System that is known to have regolith is Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The surface is known for its extensive fields of dunes, though the precise origin of them are not known. Some scientists have suggested that they may be small fragments of water ice eroded by Titan’s liquid methane, or possibly particulate organic matter that formed in Titan’s atmosphere and rained down on the surface.
Another possibility is that a series of powerful wind reversals, which occur twice during a single Saturn year (30 Earth years), are responsible for forming these dunes, which measure several hundred meters high and stretch across hundreds of kilometers. Currently, Earth scientists are still not certain what Titan’s regolith is composed of.
Data returned by the Huygens Probe’s penetrometer indicated that the surface may be clay-like, but long-term analysis of the data has suggested that it may be composed of sand-like ice grains. The images taken by the probe upon landing on the moon’s surface show a flat plain covered in rounded pebbles, which may be made of water ice, and suggest the action of moving fluids on them.
Asteroids have been observed to have regolith on their surfaces as well. These are the result of meteoriod impacts that have taken place over the course of millions of years, pulverizing their surfaces and creating dust and tiny particles that are carried within the craters.
NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft produced evidence of regolith on the surface of the asteroid 433 Eros, which remains the best images of asteroid regolith to date. Additional evidence has been provided by JAXA’s Hayabusa mission, which returned clear images of regolith on an asteroid that was thought to be too small to hold onto it.
Images provided by the Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) cameras on board the Rosetta Spacecraft confirmed that the asteroid 21 Lutetia has a layer of regolith near its north pole, which was seen to flow in major landslides associated with variations in the asteriod’s albedo.
To break it down succinctly, wherever there is rock, there is likely to be regolith. Whether it is the product of wind or flowing water, or the presence of meteors impacting the surface, good old fashioned “dirt” can be found just about anywhere in our Solar System; and most likely, in the universe beyond…
The European Space Agency is aiming for the Moon with their Lunar Lander mission, anticipated to arrive on the lunar surface in 2018. Although ESA successfully put a lander on Titan with the Huygens probe in 2005, this will be the first European spacecraft to visit the surface of Earth’s Moon.
Although Lunar Lander will be an unmanned robotic explorer, the mission will be a forerunner to future human exploration of the Moon as well as Mars. Lunar Lander will use advanced technologies for autonomous landing and will be able to determine the best location for touchdown on its own, utilizing lasers to avoid obstacles on the Moon’s surface.
With no GPS on the Moon, Lunar Lander will navigate by digitally imaging the surface on the fly. Landing will be accomplished via thrusters, which were successfully tested earlier this year at a test chamber in Germany.
Lunar Lander’s destination will be the Moon’s south pole, where no exploration missions have ever landed. Once on the lunar surface, the Lander will investigate Moon dust using a robotic arm and a suite of onboard diagnostic instruments, sending data and images back to scientists on Earth for further study.
Watch a video of the Lunar Lander mission below, from launch to landing.
Read more about Lunar Lander on the ESA site here.
Old, forgotten data from three Apollo moon missions could help overcome one of the biggest environmental hurdles facing future lunar colonists. Pervasive moon dust can clog equipment, scratch helmet visors –or worse, get inside astronaut lungs and cause serious health problems. But 173 data tapes hold information that could be essential in overcoming the problems the dust causes. The only trouble is that the tapes are archived on “ancient” 1960’s technology and no one could find the right equipment to playback the tapes. However, the Australian Computer Museum has an old IBM729 Mark 5 tape drive that should do the trick, IF the machine can be restored to operable condition again…
The IBM729 Mark 5 tape recorder is about as big as a household refrigerator. It recorded data from Apollo 11, 12 and 14 missions that carried “dust detectors.” Information from the detectors was beamed back to earth and recorded onto tapes. Copies of the tapes were supposedly sent to NASA, but the tapes were lost or misplaced before they could be archived in NASA’s holdings. But the original data tapes have sat in Perth, Australia for almost 40 years.
Physicist Brian O’Brien invented the detectors. He wrote a couple of papers on the information in the 1970’s, but no one was very interested in moon dust back then. However now, scientists realize this information could help make future missions to the moon more feasible.
“These were the only active measurements of moon dust made during the Apollo missions, and no one thought it was important,” said O’Brien. “But it’s now realised that dust, to quote Harrison Schmitt, who was the last astronaut to leave the moon, is the number one environmental problem on the moon.”
O’Brien quit his work on lunar dust when he left the University of Sydney. Two years ago, someone at NASA remembered the data had been taken, but couldn’t find the duplicate tapes.
O’Brien says there is no indication as to when exactly the tapes were lost, but he guesses that it was “way, way back.” When O’Brien learned of the tape loss, he was contacted by Guy Holmes from a data recovery company who offered to try and extract the information on the old, original tapes. But Holmes realized he needed some old equipment to do the job, and came across the right IBM tape drive at the Australian Computer Museum.
The archaic-looking recorder is in need of refurbishing, however. Holmes jokes that a 1970s Toyota Corolla fan belt could be used to get the recorder up and running.
“The drives are extremely rare, we don’t know of any others that are still operating,” he said.
“It’s going to have to be a custom job to get it working again. It’s certainly not simple, there’s a lot of circuitry in there, it’s old, it’s not as clean as it should be and there’s a lot of work to do.”
Holmes is hopeful of getting the tape recorder working again in January, and then he says it should only take a week to extract information that has been locked away since the early 1970s.