The Moon as seen from the Space Station
Science & Exploration

The toxic side of the Moon

04/07/2018 18523 views 503 likes
ESA / Science & Exploration / Human and Robotic Exploration

When the Apollo astronauts returned from the Moon, the dust that clung to their spacesuits made their throats sore and their eyes water. Lunar dust is made of sharp, abrasive and nasty particles, but how toxic is it for humans?

The “lunar hay fever”, as NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt described it during the Apollo 17 mission created symptoms in all 12 people who have stepped on the Moon. From sneezing to nasal congestion, in some cases it took days for the reactions to fade. Inside the spacecraft, the dust smelt like burnt gunpowder.

The Moon missions left an unanswered question of lunar exploration – one that could affect humanity’s next steps in the Solar System: can lunar dust jeopardise human health?

Moon dust on astronaut after moonwalk
Moon dust on astronaut after moonwalk

An ambitious ESA research programme with experts from around the planet is now addressing the issues related to lunar dust.

“We don’t know how bad this dust is. It all comes down to an effort to estimate the degree of risk involved,” says Kim Prisk, a pulmonary physiologist from the University of California with over 20 years of experience in human spaceflight – one of the 12 scientists taking part in ESA’s research.

Nasty dust
Lunar dust has silicate in it, a material commonly found on planetary bodies with volcanic activity. Miners on Earth suffer from inflamed and scarred lungs from inhaling silicate. On the Moon, the dust is so abrasive that it ate away layers of spacesuit boots and destroyed the vacuum seals of Apollo sample containers.

Lunar dust particle
Lunar dust particle

Fine like powder, but sharp like glass. The low gravity of the Moon, one sixth of what we have on Earth, allows tiny particles to stay suspended for longer and penetrate more deeply into the lung.

“Particles 50 times smaller than a human hair can hang around for months inside your lungs. The longer the particle stays, the greater the chance for toxic effects,” explains Kim.

The potential damage from inhaling this dust is unknown but research shows that lunar soil simulants can destroy lung and brain cells after long-term exposure.

Down to the particle

On Earth, fine particles tend to smoothen over years of erosion by wind and water, lunar dust however, is not round, but sharp and spiky.

In addition the Moon has no atmosphere and is constantly bombarded by radiation from the Sun that causes the soil to become electrostatically charged.

Collecting lunar samples
Collecting lunar samples

This charge can be so strong that the dust levitates above the lunar surface, making it even more likely to get inside equipment and people’s lungs.

Dusty workplace

To test equipment and the behaviour of lunar dust, ESA will be working with simulated Moon dust mined from a volcanic region in Germany.

Working with the simulant is no easy feat. “The rarity of the lunar glass-like material makes it a special kind of dust. We need to grind the source material but that means removing the sharp edges,” says Erin Tranfield, biologist and expert in dust toxicity.

The lunar soil does have a bright side. “You can heat it to produce bricks that can offer shelter for astronauts. Oxygen can be extracted from the soil to sustain human missions on the Moon,” explains science advisor Aidan Cowley.

Deep breath
Deep breath

This week ESA is hosting a workshop on lunar resources at the European Space Research Technology Centre in the Netherlands, meanwhile in space ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst is running a session of the Airway Monitoring experiment to monitor lung health in reduced gravity – preparing for a sustainable return to our nearest neighbour in the Solar System.

Related Articles

Moon seen from Space Station
Science & Exploration

To the Moon – down south

16/07/2019 2733 views 73 likes
Open item
The Moon as seen from the Space Station
Applications

ESA identifies demand for satellites around the Moon

16/07/2019 2347 views 76 likes
Open item
Heracles
Science & Exploration

Developing a high-performance rocket motor for the Heracles…

16/05/2019 1436 views 17 likes
Open item
ALINA on the Moon
Science & Exploration

Starting up a new cooperation for the Moon

08/05/2019 1546 views 21 likes
Open item
Testing the Heracles lunar rover
Science & Exploration

Guidance and navigation systems for Heracles

18/04/2019 539 views 7 likes
Open item
Moonrise
Science & Exploration

ESA and NASA to team up on lunar science

28/03/2019 5944 views 122 likes
Open item
Space gateway
Science & Exploration

Gateway to the Moon

11/03/2019 13376 views 222 likes
Open item
In-Situ Resource Utilisation
Science & Exploration

Astrobotic team to study delivery of lunar resources mission

26/02/2019 739 views 9 likes
Open item
The extent of Earth’s geocorona
Science & Exploration

Earth’s atmosphere stretches out to the Moon – and beyond

20/02/2019 61996 views 274 likes
Open item
Moon dust on astronaut after moonwalk
Science & Exploration

Project Pextex: materials for lunar spacesuits

15/02/2019 2707 views 44 likes
Open item
Multispectral view
Science & Exploration

A new camera for lunar exploration

29/01/2019 740 views 7 likes
Open item
Helga, the radiation dummy
Science & Exploration

Radiation for dummies

25/01/2019 10139 views 133 likes
Open item
Science & Exploration

Preparing astronaut lunar exploration

23/01/2019 4707 views 75 likes
Open item
Creativity room at EAC
Science & Exploration

Bold ideas for life off Earth

24/01/2019 856 views 11 likes
Open item
Space Station Moon
Agency

Moving on the Moon

23/01/2019 5776 views 90 likes
Open item
Lunar attraction
Science & Exploration

Total lunar eclipse 2019

18/01/2019 11861 views 97 likes
Open item
Station Moon transit
Science & Exploration

Moon engine now in development

08/10/2018 4516 views 67 likes
Open item
1.5 tonne building block
Science & Exploration

Bricks from Moon dust

20/08/2018 15596 views 149 likes
Open item
The Moon as seen from the Space Station
Science & Exploration

The toxic side of the Moon

04/07/2018 18523 views 503 likes
Open item
Brick 3D printed from moondust using focused sunlight
Enabling & Support

Printing bricks from moondust using the Sun’s heat

03/05/2017 12609 views 131 likes
Open item
Goonhilly antenna
Enabling & Support

Goonhilly goes deep space

22/02/2018 5044 views 97 likes
Open item
Science & Exploration

First steps: returning humanity to the Moon

20/09/2017 16296 views 292 likes
Open item
In-Situ Resource Utilisation
Agency

Water and oxygen made on the Moon

2033 views 13 likes
Open item

Related Links