Bombarding a space suit with an electron beam could cause jagged grinding moon dust to leap directly from the suit, according to a newly published study,media reported. Apollo-era astronauts noted that the stickiness and troublesome nature of lunar dust caused equipment and health problems the last time humans set foot on the moon, and finding ways to deal with sharp particles was a top priority for NASA and other space agencies around the world.
NASA and its partners have embarked on a marathon effort to send American boots to Mars for the first time in human history, but the agency’s first destination will be closer to home. Before a manned trip to Mars is considered feasible, countless technologies need to be invented and tested, especially those that keep astronauts alive and healthy while exploring the surface of Mars.
NASA can use these technologies for the closest and most obvious test site for space testing, the moon, which humans are slightly familiar with. As the earth’s natural satellite, it has many advantages in manned exploration, most obviously it is very close to the earth, but it also has shortcomings.
For any mission to land on the moon’s surface, whether led by humans or robots, one factor is almost inevitable — lunar dust.
The moon’s surface is covered with a thick layer of dust, which scientists call a weathering layer, a serious problem for Apollo-era astronauts exploring Earth’s moons.
Particles are completely different from their names on Earth. The weathering layer is sharp, and saturated solar radiation gives it a positive charge, so it tends to adhere to any surface it touches. To make matters worse, in the moon’s low-gravity environment, it is easily hit by astronauts’ boots or naturally occurring phenomena such as micro-meteorites.
Apollo astronauts reported that the weathering layer damaged spacesuits, covered equipment, reduced the performance of thermally controlled surfaces and even endangered the health of astronauts. It may also obscure solar panels and reduce their ability to generate electricity.
A new study led by Boulder of the University of Colorado suggests that electron beams could be an effective weapon in future wars to keep spacesuits and other critical equipment on the moon’s surface clean.
The researchers placed samples of materials, including glass plates and Apollo spacesuit samples, in a vacuum chamber. These surfaces are covered with a different number of “moon simulations” — alternatives to nasa-made simulated weathering layer properties.
An electron stream is then emitted into the sample and an attempt is made to separate the dust. In theory, electrons can penetrate the top layer of particles and hit the particles below, causing secondary electrons — also known as photoelectrons — to be emitted. Some of these secondary particles are absorbed into the micro-holes that separate them and then negative charges are deposited in the surrounding particles.
If enough electrons are emitted into the simulated weathering layer, the negative charges that accumulate on tiny dust-like particles will push them out of each other and then generate enough force to overcome the forces that bring them together. This will allow particles to jump away from matter.
Most of the dust particles that cover the surface of the particles are indeed observed flying away after being hit by a concentrated beam of low-energy electrons. The success of electronic cleaning depends on the thickness of the weathering layer, although an average of 75% to 85% of the particles are removed overall.
The researchers suggest that future astronauts could use a mix of electron beams and brushes to keep their equipment in order.
Such studies may be unattractive, but they are essential if humans are to persist in another world. Astronauts can’t explore without spacesuits and electricity.