Cloud Of Moon Dust Could Affect Space Travel

Scientists from the University of Colorado-Boulder have revealed that the moon may be far dustier than we thought.

The researchers have found evidence of a permanent cloud of dust which surrounds the moon, the result of myriad collisions between comet dust particles and the surface of the moon, writes Katherine Ellen Foley for Quartz.

Space travel affected by dust impacts

Data gathered by the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explore (LADEE) spacecraft led scientists to draw some worrying conclusions. LADEE, which launched in September 2013, recorded 140,000 impacts between dust and the lunar surface over the course of 80 days, and the incoming dust particles move at very high speeds.

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“We’re really talking about very small particles,” said lead author Mihaly Horányi. “I think there is a concern about the long-duration exposure to dust impacts, and what happens with mirrors and mechanical devices [in space].”

The effect is similar to sand-blasting and could damage equipment. Astronauts who wish to spend longer on the lunar surface may find their equipment affected by the dust.

Data reveals cloud of dust around the moon

Scientists have long been aware of the existence of interplanetary dust, of which the Earth receives 100 tons every day. In comparison, the smaller surface of the moon receives around 5 tons of cosmic dust per day.

However the difference is that the Earth has an atmosphere which protects it from the dust, whereas the moon does not. Consequently the tiny particles hit the moon at approximately 45,000 miles per hour, and the impacts displace dust from the surface of the moon. “It’s like a plume, or a little explosion,” said Horányi.

According to the study, these little particles do not enter the moon’s orbit, but rather shoot up to an altitude of around 155 miles from the surface and then fall down again.

This cloud of dust is maintained by the constant series of impacts from cosmic dust, and Horanyi believes that it will be a constant presence around the moon. Although this study focused specifically on the moon, in theory other rocky interstellar objects with thin atmospheres may also be enveloped in a dust cloud, which would make space travel to Mercury, Mars and the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos more difficult as well.