Sniffing Moondust: Upon This Handful of Regolith, Our Survival Depends

September 11th, 2019

by Ariel Tokarz

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Even before the first footstep on the moon, we’ve known its surface was dusty. But have you ever considered sniffing moondust?

After six human missions between 1969 and 1972, it became clear that the layer of dust and rock, called regolith, was more than just a pretty surface feature.

It has the texture of sandpaper of the consistency of snow and sticks to anything it can: space suits, rocks, fingers, and the inside of the Apollo command modules.

It’s also highly toxic: although Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan described a scent like “spent gunpowder,” you definitely wouldn’t want to breathe it.

That hasn’t stopped Kevin Grossman, a materials’ scientist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and the head of a team developing a device that will melt Lunar regolith and turn it into breathable oxygen.

As all NASA projects do, Grossman’s venture has a marvelous name – GaLORE: the Gaseous Lunar Oxygen from Regolith Electrolysis project.

Breathable Moondust? How?

Regolith is made up of oxidized metals like iron oxide, silicon oxide, and aluminum oxide.

  • When heated to more than 3000 F and pumped with electricity, these compounds split into gaseous oxygen and their component metal.

The process of releasing oxygen with power is called electrolysis and is demonstrated often enough here on Earth, but for the GaLORE team, several challenges remain to be overcome. The high temperatures and presence of iron create corrosive conditions that might damage the heating device.

Operation on the moon requires a design that can withstand the extreme conditions an astronaut cannot. The contraption also must be able to run when there are no astronauts there to control it.

The promise of gaseous oxygen, however, is enough to inspire innovative solutions to these challenges.

  • It can be used for life support since the moon lacks any kind of atmosphere.
  • Or it can be used as an oxidizer in a fuel that would get astronauts off the lunar surface and back home.

The metal byproducts of the GaLORE process might be used for construction to expand human presence, or to 3D print tools and vehicles that astronauts might need.

The Race for Lunar Regolith

NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate selected GaLORE as an Early Career Initiative project.

This is a grant NASA distributes within its centers to employees with new, innovative ideas, allowing them to pursue making the idea a reality.

The teams supported by NASA’s Early Career Initiative are small, but the technologies they develop are facing high-priority challenges and transform how the agency tackles such issues.

NASA isn’t the only agency considering innovative uses of lunar regolith. A Discovery & Preparation study performed by the European Space Agency (ESA) explored how the dust could be used as batteries – to store heat and provide electricity for both human and robotic moon explorers.

Under project manager Luca Celotti from Azimut Space, the researchers baked simulation regolith into bricks, and then pumped energy into it to measure heat storage.

This heat was then accessed by a heat engine to turn it into electricity. It worked surprisingly well, indicating regolith batteries might one day help make long-term lunar habitation a reality.

Our planned return to the moon in 2024 is a return to stay, so innovative ideas such as lunar batteries and air generation need to be developed to achieve sustainable human exploration.

According to Grossman, the goal of the GaLORE team is to solve some of the challenges posed by such a mission and to bring

NASA one step closer to automated mass production of oxygen on the Moon.

It’s technologies like these that will allow us to follow Apollo’s dusty footsteps, and eventually go on to leave our footprints on Mars.

Further Reading

NASA. NASA Kennedy to Develop Tech to Melt Moon Dust, Extract Oxygen. [] Powering The Future With Lunar Soil. []

Outer Places. Scientists Determine Moon Dust Could Destroy Lung And Brain Cells, Damage DNA In Future Astronauts. []

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