PULLMAN, Wash. — This week, NASA announced who will be on the crew of Artemis II, its return-to-the-moon mission.
Although that upcoming mission doesn't include a lunar landing, future missions do.
A group of Washington State University students could have a hand in helping those astronauts stay safe once they're on the moon's surface. NASA has put man on the moon before, and as it prepares to return, it is trying to figure out how to keep a pesky nuisance in check.
"You can think of it like really, really small, sharp packing peanuts that are just attracted to anything that gets onto the surface and are very very difficult to get off," WSU senior Ian Wells said.
Wells is talking about moon dust, the tiny particles that are electrically charged, abrasive and get everywhere, including in astronauts' lungs, which can cause lunar hay fever. Moon dust can coat and scratch surfaces, debilitating equipment, and can also creep into the seals of spacesuits.
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During the Apollo missions, astronauts used a brush to try to remove the dust from their spacesuits, but it didn’t work very well. NASA put out a call for solutions as part of its "BIG Idea Challenge."
Wells and WSU associate professor Jake Leachman stepped up with an idea to clean the dust.
"We would watch these liquid nitrogen droplets running around on the floor like water on a hot skillet and they would collect all of the dust and put it in the lowest part of the floor and just leave it there in one nice spot," Leachman said.
They put liquid nitrogen into a sprayer, similar to what a dermatologist uses.
"If you've ever had to have a wart frozen off, we modified one of those same sprayers and used that initially and then developed that into something we could use as a vacuum," Wells said.
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The research team found that the sprayer removed more than 98% of a moon dust simulant in a vacuum environment with minimal damage to spacesuits. The WSU team faced off against more than 50 other teams. WSU made it to the final seven, and in the end, they won it all. Their project won the Artemis Award and $130,000 for research.
"Which means out of all of those projects, out of all of those teams, NASA believed that our technology was the most likely to be implemented on these upcoming Artemis missions," Wells said.
"Ian showed yet again that WSU's best can compete and beat the best at anywhere in the country can produce," Leachman said. "We just need those opportunities to compete and to show that."
So what comes next?
The research team plans to do more testing this time in a more extreme vacuum environment with electrical charging on the dust. They also plan to test the liquid nitrogen on different materials, besides spacesuits.