Scientists conduct an experiment with moon dust in zero gravity

Moon dust is extremely fine and at the same time has a static electric charge. In order to clarify its properties, scientists conducted an experiment with it in zero gravity. They used the New Shepard rocket for this.

The capsule with moon dust returns to Earth. Source: Blue Origin

Insidious moon dust

Researchers are studying data from a recent suborbital flight to better understand the properties of lunar dust, which is called regolith. It may have harmful effects on astronauts and equipment during future missions under the Artemis program. An experiment developed jointly by NASA and the University of Central Florida sheds light on how these abrasive dust particles interact with humans, their spacesuits and other equipment on the Moon. 

The Electrostatic Regolith Interaction Experiment (ERIE) was one of 14 cargoes launched with NASA support on December 19 aboard Blue Origin’s crewless New Shepard rocket from Launch Pad One in West Texas. During the flight test, ERIE collected data that will help researchers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida study tribocharging, or friction-induced charges, in microgravity. 

The moon is constantly bombarded by solar wind particles and ultraviolet radiation from our luminary. Under such conditions, regolith grains are attracted to lunar explorers and their equipment. This is similar to the static electric field that is created when a person rubs a balloon against his head. A sufficient amount of regolith can lead to overheating of the instruments or to the fact that they will not work as intended.

“For example, if you get dust on an astronaut suit and bring it back into the habitat, that dust could unstick and fly around the cabin,” says Krystal Acosta, a researcher at NASA’s triboelectric sensor board, which is part of the ERIE payload.

One of the main problems is that there is no way to electrically ground anything on the moon. Therefore, even a lander, a lunar rover or any other object on the Moon will have its own polarity. There is no good solution to the problem of charging from dust yet.

Investigation of charged microparticles

Kennedy’s team designed and built a triboelectric sensor board inside the ERIE payload. During the flight in microgravity, dust grains simulating regolith particles collided with eight insulators inside the ERIE, creating a static charge. Its positive and negative values were then measured by the equipment.

The ERIE cargo spent about three minutes in microgravity during the New Shepard capsule’s suborbital flight, which lasted about 10 minutes before landing safely back to Earth in the Texas desert. The camera recorded this interaction, and now scientists are analyzing the data obtained.

The results will form the basis for future missions to the moon’s surface. For example, using triboelectric sensors on the wheels of the lunar rover, astronauts will be able to measure positive and negative charges between the vehicle and the regolith on the surface of the Moon. The ultimate goal is to develop technologies that will help prevent sticking and damage to spacesuits and electronics during missions.

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