WSU develops cleaning process that scrubs away moon dust

Washington State University could be headed to the moon — all thanks to a cutting-edge cleaning process.

WSU researchers have found that a liquid nitrogen spray can remove almost all of the moon dust from a space suit, potentially solving a major problem for moon-landing astronauts.

The sprayer removed more than 98% of moon dust simulant in a vacuum environment, which is much closer to the environment on the moon.

The research team also found that liquid nitrogen did not cause major damage to space suits. WSU researchers have reported on their work in the journal Acta Astronautica.

“Moon dust is electrostatically charged, abrasive and gets everywhere, making it a very difficult substance to deal with,” said Ian Wells, first author on the paper and a senior in WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. “You end up with a fine layer of dust as a minimum just covering everything.”

Wells says liquid nitrogen is also abundant here on Earth and could slide into the role of cleaning agent in a relatively simple manner.

“You use liquid nitrogen, and you can think of it kind of like a car wash for space suits. The idea is an astronaut would walk into an airlock that hasn’t been pressurized yet, they are sprayed down with (liquid nitrogen) and the (liquid nitrogen) actually picks up the moon dust and moves it off of the space suits,” said Wells.

The WSU team also found that liquid nitrogen spray was also much gentler on spacesuit materials than other cleaning methods. The research team also found that a simple brush caused damage to the spacesuit after just one brushing, while the liquid nitrogen spray took 75 cycles before damage occurred.

The WSU research was supported by a NASA grant, and took a top prize last year at the Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge.

During the crewed Apollo missions to the moon in the 1960s and early 1970s, astronauts actually tried to use a brush to remove moon dust, but it didn’t work that well. Dust also got into the spacesuits, destroying their seals and making some of the expensive suits unusable. Researchers also suspect that longer exposure to the dust could cause lung damage similar to that of black lung disease.

“It posed a lot of problems that affected the missions, as well as the astronauts, once they returned home,” said Wells.

The researchers are now working to fully understand and model the complex interactions between the dust particles and liquid nitrogen that allows the cleaning process to work. They are also applying for another grant to further test the technology in conditions that more closely approximate outer space, such as in lunar gravity.

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