Tackling Moondust for Future Lunar Living
An artist's illustration of NASA's Altair Lander on the moon.
Credit: NASA

Better living on the moon could start with keeping lunar dust out.

Astronauts living on a permanent moon base will need protection against the bleak world?s asbestos-like dust, not to mention shielding from radiation and a plan to ward off psychological demons.

Those challenges weigh on NASA's plans to send humans back to the moon before the end of the next decade, when four-astronaut crews would have to learn how to live on the lunar surface in a space the size of a small mobile home.

"It's not just like dirt in your house," said Robert Howard, engineer and manager of NASA's Habitability Design Center, of the moon?s ubiquitous dust.

Lunar dust began as a problem back when Apollo astronauts found the gray powder clinging to everything. Even the vacuum designed to clean the spacesuits and spacecraft choked on the stuff.

Now researchers want to know how much dust would settle in astronaut lungs within the moon's reduced gravity of just one sixth that of Earth's gravity.

"In the big picture, the questions are: How much goes into the lung? Where does it go? How long does it stay? And how nasty is the stuff?" said Kim Prisk, a medical researcher at the University of California, San Diego.

Astronauts may spend up to six months living with the lunar dust that resembles fresh-fractured quartz, a highly toxic substance. Reduced gravity could keep dust particles suspended in the airways, which provides more time for the toxic dust to get deep into the lungs and reach the bloodstream.

Prisk and other researchers of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute monitored volunteers who breathed in dust-sized particles during flights on NASA's Microgravity Research Aircraft. The airplanes can make steep dives to briefly simulate reduced- and zero-gravity.

"With the reduced-gravity flights, we?re improving the process of assessing environmental exposure to inhaled particles,? Kim said. ?We?ve learned that tiny particles (less than 2.5 microns or 0.0025 millimeters) which are the most significant in terms of damage, are greatly affected by alterations in gravity."

Howard and other NASA engineers already have ideas on how to clear out unwanted dust in lunar habitats. Electromagnets could pull or drive off lunar dust that has metallic qualities, while air hoses could also help.

Astronauts might even leave their suit outside after attaching to a suit port outside the moon base or a lunar rover.

"The suit never comes into the vehicle," Howard told SPACE.com, adding that astronauts could crawl out of the suit and into the vehicle after locking into place.

That would also require a new lunar rover that's more mini-RV rather than dune buggy, Howard said.

Radiation and recreation

Another hazard to astronaut health would come from dangerously high levels of space radiation. Massive solar storms or galactic cosmic rays from far off could have fatal consequences for any living being on the moon. By contrast, astronauts living on the International Space Station and flying on shuttle missions are protected from the worst by Earth's magnetic field.

Previous ideas for radiation countermeasures include using electrostatic shielding to protect lunar inhabitants. Howard noted that ridges near the moon's South Pole could ideally house an underground base. Astronauts could also tote around portable shielding inside the habitats in cases of emergency involving "short duration, high radiation" events.

Howard and other engineers have not forgotten the human component to living on another world, despite grappling with the technical challenges.

"I'm a habitability person, so I'm focused on the psychological well-being," Howard said.

He pointed to psychological lessons from living on the space station and observed the importance of having "a place to call your own" as private quarters.

Learning to live on the moon would ultimately provide a stepping stone towards learning to live in other alien environments. Call it a dry run for the even more daunting and distant prospect of living on Mars.

"It's just five days away in an emergency, so we can go home if we have to," Howard said. "We have to have it right before going to Mars."