It has been a very long time since man has walked on the moon – nearly 50 years, in fact, as the last occurrence having been in 1972 with the Apollo 17 mission. One thing that all men who have managed to touch down on the moon have mentioned, according to Phys.org, is the annoying and somewhat harmful reality of toxic lunar dust.
When the men who crewed the Apollo mission returned to Earth, they found that the particles still clinging to their suits and equipment caused their throats to constrict painfully and their eyes to water. Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts also claimed, according to Silicon Republic, that the dust precipitated nasal congestion that was difficult to clear for days on end, even after having safely landed on Earth and being subjected to a diluted concentration of the fine moon matter.
Lunar dust is comprised of small, sharp, pointed particles that can be very abrasive. It does not take a large leap of the imagination to consider that it may not be healthy in the long term to inhale any amount of these particles, nor even allow them to embed themselves into sensitive skin or vital equipment. But lunar dust is pervasive, literally everywhere on the surface of the moon and so easily disturbed by any passage through the soft crust of Earth’s satellite.
The manned missions to the moon may have been inspiring for so many from that generation, and with science fiction television shows featuring space exploration returning to the forefront in the form of The Expanse alongside President Trump’s announcements regarding the creation of a tentatively titled “Space Force,” it would seem there is a public desire to return to the moon and the space beyond.
This means that the consideration of the effects of toxic lunar dust on long-term inhabitants or colonists of our moon must be front and center when discussing the potential for further manned missions to the great grey orb in the night sky. An innovative new ESA research program plans to probe the issues related to the moon 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, one of the 12 scientists taking part in the European Space Agency research and a pulmonary physiologist with more than two decades of experience in researching human spaceflight and tertiary concerns thereof.
Lunar dust contains silicate, fine like hairs and sharp as glass. Coal miners and other deep mineral miners on Earth often contract what is known as the black lung or lung cancer from inhaling silicate particles over time. The light atmosphere of the moon means that these particles can remain suspended in the air for some time after being disturbed and can embed themselves deeply into the lungs. The abrasive nature of silicate means that even the bottom layers of the boots worn on the lunar surface by astronauts were frequently and easily shredded.
“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 ESA will be conducting a cognate test of lunar conditions with simulated moon dust taken from a volcanic region in Germany to reproduce the conditions. While the volcanic matter will be the most similar earthly relative to the unique lunar glass-like material, it must be ground finer to match the consistency, which means dulling the sharp edges.
The potential for long-term damage to equipment or to human health from the lunar particulate is as yet unknown but does not look especially promising given all of the negative vectors already shown during even a short stint on the surface of the moon.