When it comes to the future of spaceflight, the Moon is the place to be. Several missions are set to land on the Moon in the next few years in an effort to establish a human presence on the lunar surface. Although they’re meant to bolster lunar activity, those landings, however, could in turn have a negative effect on spacecraft orbiting the Moon.
A recent study, newly uploaded to the preprint arXiv, examined the potential damage caused by lunar landers, which can eject dust from the surface of the Moon and send it into orbit as they land on the surface. With enough Moon landings in the future, a cloud of pesky lunar dust particles could get in the way of orbiting spacecraft.
Lunar dust has always been an issue for Moon missions. Astronauts from NASA’s Apollo program reported annoying difficulties in dealing with dust from the Moon’s surface, those electrically charged, fine particles of regolith that stick on any surface. As Apollo astronauts entered and exited the lunar module, dust got everywhere and “it clogged mechanisms, interfered with instruments, caused radiators to overheat and even tore up their spacesuits,” according to NASA.
As NASA prepares to land on the Moon as part of its Artemis program, the space agency is now aware of the trials and tribulations of lunar dust when it comes to its astronauts. Frequent Moon landings, however, could have larger impacts on orbiters or space stations in lunar orbit, according to the new pre-print, which has yet to go through peer review. Planetary physicist Philip Metzger from the University of Central Florida co-authored the new study.
The Artemis program will involve several lunar landings in the coming years, with Artemis 3 scheduled for launch in late 2025, followed by Artemis 4 in 2028. Afterwards, NASA wants to establish a steady flow of astronauts headed for the Moon. The space agency isn’t the only one with longterm lunar ambitions; China recently revealed its own plan to land astronauts on the Moon by 2030 and establish a sustainable presence on the surface as well.
The study found that large lunar landers would kick up clouds of dust from the surface of the Moon, sending this “ejecta,” in the parlance of scientists, tens of thousands of particles into orbit. A 40-ton lunar lander could accelerate surface dust to speeds of around 10,000 miles per hour (16,000 kilometers per hour), which is enough to place a large cloud of particles into lunar orbit.
NASA’s future Lunar Gateway, designed to be a space station in a highly elongated “halo” orbit around the Moon, would pass through this dusty sheet but will likely suffer little to no damage, the scientists claim. Other orbiting spacecraft flying closer to the Moon, on the other hand, “will sustain extensive damage with hundreds of millions of impacts per square meter,” according to the paper.
Even if the high-velocity impact of the particles doesn’t damage the spacecraft, the dust itself will. “As you know, regolith particulates are very, very fine,” William Schonberg, an engineering professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology, told Gizmodo in an email. “So even if they don’t do any impact damage, they can still ‘settle’ on critical functional surfaces and components of lunar orbiting spacecraft and nearby lunar habitats or worksites and so can easily ‘gum up’ that functionality.”
As Schonberg points out, the dust could also pose a risk to future lunar habitats built on the surface of the Moon. “That’s probably why recent lunar sci-fi shows have lunar take-off and landing sites far removed from any surface habitats, right?” he added.
So as the new study shows, lunar dust is not just annoying to deal with on the surface of the Moon, it could be a major hazard for lunar spacecraft in the future. NASA and other agencies with their landers set for the Moon should keep its dusty surface in mind.
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