Left in the Dust No More

05/01/2023
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    Researchers blasted Barbies with pressurized liquid nitrogen. (Courtesy of Washington State University)
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    Students test the new way to dust. (Courtesy of Washington State University)
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    This image shows a Barbie astronaut after being dusted (left); after dusting and treatment in a vacuum (center); after dusting, treatment in a vacuum, and spot treatment with a liquid cryogen spray (right). (Courtesy of Washington State University)
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    The new way to clean picks up the dust. (Courtesy of Washington State University) 
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    The Moon is is covered with dust. (Pixabay)
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Your feather duster is no match for Moon dust. Moon dust (also known as regolith) is made of teeny, electrostatically charged particles. And it gets everywhere. Crushed lunar rock creeps into astronauts’ lungs. It sticks to spacesuits and equipment. Brushes and vacuums are ineffective at removing it. Plus, they damage spacesuits. (See also Mastering Moon Dust.)

Researchers at Washington State University may have a solution. They employed unique coworkers for their tests: Barbie dolls.

Scientists dressed the dolls in replica spacesuits. They coated the Barbies with volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens, along with other substances similar to lunar dust. Then they placed all the dolls in a vacuum chamber. Researchers sprayed pressurized liquid nitrogen to blast away the fine powder.

It worked. The liquid nitrogen removed more than 98% of the fake Moon dust in 233 tests. The strategy caused minimal damage to the miniature spacesuits.

Pressurized liquid nitrogen captures dust in what is known as the Leidenfrost Effect. Liquid droplets hover over a surface that is much hotter than the liquid’s boiling point—and almost anything is hotter than liquid nitrogen’s boiling point of about -320° Fahrenheit! If you’ve ever poured cold water into a scalding pan, you’ve seen this reaction. The water beads up on the pan surface. The cold liquid nitrogen hovered over the warmer spacesuits. It enclosed the dust particles in droplets and floated away.

There’s a possible wrench thrown into this strategy though. The liquid nitrogen method is successful on Earth. But Earth has much stronger gravity than the Moon. Spraying any fluid in a weightless space has unpredictable outcomes. But what about a less-weight space?

It’s also a challenge to send liquid nitrogen on any space mission safely. The Leidenfrost Effect works on multiple levels. The boiling point of oxygen is higher than nitrogen. When liquid nitrogen gas fills confined spaces, oxygen can condense into it. Displacing oxygen can make an area unsafe for humans.

NASA engineers keep brainstorming. They experiment with ideas like slippery coatings that keep dust from sticking to surfaces. Electrostatic devices could resist dust particles. Waves of ultrasonic energy might be an option. Ultrasonic cleaning uses high frequency sound waves to cause vibrations in cleaning liquids. The vibrations create forces that separate dust from surfaces.

It takes vision and collaboration to tackle the challenges of Moon missions. The Bible says to ask God for help when we face obstacles.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. — James 1:5

Why? We all have to come up with creative solutions when we run into hurdles. God can equip us with diligence to solve problems in ways that benefit many people.