Looking up at the moon, you might
think that it’s relatively benign, maybe a nice place to visit? Maybe you
wonder, as you stare at its cratered face as it drifts across the night sky,
why we haven’t been back since Apollo 17?
There may be a good reason for that. And it may come down to lunar regolith,
or, moon dust. During the Apollo missions, the substance got everywhere, inside
the lander, on the suits, beneath the fingernails of astronauts, in their eyes,
in their lungs, caused equipment and computer failure, and most troubling, was
how it wore down the protective layers of the astronaut’s suits over time. By
the time they’d finished their mission and were ready to return home, the moon
dust had worn their boots down to such a degree, that there was risk of a complete
breach in some suits.
Lunar regolith is like sand, but since it’s constantly blasted by charged
particles by the solar wind, it’s as fine as glass, and it carries a slight
magnetic charge from constant exposure to the solar wind, meaning it sticks to
everything. It covers nearly the entirety of the moon’s surface; bedrock is
only visible on the walls of craters. Scientists believe that this moon dust
was created by uncountable impacts from meteorites.
It was feared that the lunar dust would be too light to support the lunar
lander’s weight at the beginning of the Apollo program. Fortunately, robotic Surveyors
showed that the lunar surface was firm enough to support a landing spacecraft. Later,
astronauts observed that the surface of the moon felt very “firm” beneath their
With NASA’s current plans to return to the moon in the near future, the question
becomes; how will they deal with the challenges that lunar regolith presents?