Lunar dust coats the spacesuit of Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan after his final moonwalk in December 1972. The dust could be either friend or foe to future lunar explorers, so scientists are creating their own moondust in the laboratory to help test its effects on people and equipment. [NASA]
KUHLMAN: I hate dust. Dust gets into vacuum systems and wreaks havoc. But people are going to need analogs if we ever go back to the Moon.
Kim Kuhlman is a researcher at the Planetary Science Institute. Over the last few years, her job has included studying moondust -- without any real moondust. Like many other researchers, she's studied lunar simulants -- mixtures of materials from here on Earth that are similar to certain kinds of moondust.
When people start to build bases on the Moon, they'll want to use the moondust, known as regolith, as a resource. They'll extract water from it, along with hydrogen to make rocket fuel. They may also use the regolith to make concrete, or to make solar cells for producing electricity. Eventually, they may even extract a form of helium to power nuclear fusion reactors.
KUHLMAN: Part of the work that I'm doing is to calculate the activation energy needed to get the hydrogen and helium out. You heat the regolith and collect the gases that come out and then distill it, essentially.
But the techniques for doing that on the Moon have to be developed and tested here on Earth. There's not enough real moondust from the Apollo missions to go around, so the solution is simulants. NASA scientists grind up volcanic rocks, mix in the right kinds of minerals, then dry out the mixture -- a perfect recipe for moondust.
While moondust may be a good resource, it could also be a deadly foe. More about that tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.