6 mins read 08 Dec 2021

New CSIRO facility helping to shake off that lunar dust

From the first iconic image of Armstrong's footprint on the Moon, NASA started to understand the abrasive and damaging nature of lunar dust. Now CSIRO is taking a step to help solve the challenge of lunar dust with their new facility providing a Moon-like terrain for testing rovers and equipment to explore the Moon's surface.

December 1972 - Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, Apollo 17 commander inside the lunar module, his spacesuit covered in dust (Credit: NASA/Schmitt) and the lunar roving vehicle (LRV) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site during Apollo 17 lunar surface extravehicular activity (12 December 1972). Astronauts Eugene A. Cernan and Harrison H. Schmitt reported problems with lunar dust because of the damaged rear fender. The lunar dust visibly covers the rover and spacesuits. Credit: NASA/Cernan.

In 1969, NASA made history by putting the first human on the Moon. After those first steps, it was evident that the fine, sharp and abrasive lunar dust was more than just annoying. The dust clogged mechanisms, interfered with instruments, and even damaged the astronauts’ spacesuits.

Lunar dust is one of the greatest challenges to overcome for long-term exploration and sustainability on the Moon. Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan said after his 1972 mission, “Dust is probably one of the greatest inhibitors to a nominal operation on the Moon.”

Now, there is a new Brisbane-based CSIRO facility that provides a Moon-like terrain for testing and evaluating rovers and other equipment used to explore the surface of the moon in future space missions. Researchers and businesses can test their technology in the new In-situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) facility which includes a sealed dust area to safely handle and manage various types of lunar regolith simulant (fake moon dust).

The facility also has smaller tanks and pits for smaller-scale tests and a mission control room to remotely monitor rovers, payloads and equipment.

CSIRO Space Program Director Dr Kimberley Clayfield said the facility is an excellent addition to the suite of facilities CSIRO manages and will complement CSIRO’s space research and the activities of the Australian space sector.

“Our ability to simulate the lunar terrain at this scale is an exciting advancement for the development of space technology in Australia,” Dr Clayfield said.  

“This facility is the latest example of our commitment to stimulating innovation, supporting industry and solving the greatest challenges through space science, technology and exploration.

“We’re looking forward to working with researchers and businesses from across the space sector to test their technology and systems for future space missions.”

On Earth, the dust particles are smoothed by erosion whether it’s running water, wind or rain but on the Moon, there is no erosion causing the dust particles to remain sharp and abrasive, like tiny shards of glass. The sun-facing side of the moon is constantly exposed to solar radiation so that the dust has a positive electrical charge making it cling to everything. Any activity on the Moon causes masses of dust to stir up as it is not packed down like it is on Earth.

This same lunar dust could also be the key to establishing a sustainable human presence on the Moon and supporting future missions to Mars. Containing oxide, the regolith could be used to supplement oxygen supplies in the future and may even potentially be a fuel source.

CSIRO ISRU Project Leader Dr Jonathon Ralston explained how the lunar regolith is both the solution and one of the major challenges facing these robotic missions.

“We know the regolith will contain useful materials like oxygen that could be used for fuel or breathable air, however, we need to first identify these elements and develop ways of extracting and processing them,” Dr Ralston said.

“The challenge is the Moon's dust is powdery, sharp and electrostatically charged so it sticks to everything and has the potential to damage the technology sent to investigate it.

“Our facility offers technology developers the opportunity to test their equipment closer to home, in a safe environment to find solutions to this dusty problem.

“There are three major spaces in the facility: a sealed dust lab houses our lunar terrain testbed, a control room is used to remotely operate robotic equipment, and dedicated instrumentation and dust chambers are used for safely investigating regolith properties and processes.

“We were able to establish this Stage 1 facility using existing infrastructure that was no longer in use and retrofitted these spaces within it. The overall dimensions of the facility are approximately 15m x 15m. We first installed the 7m x 4m sealed dust chamber for safely managing the regolith for testing.”

Add to that the mission control room and a myriad of tanks and glove boxes of various sizes for smaller-scale tests - it is a sizable facility.

Recreating the Moon’s surface

The dust chamber can house relatively large quantities of crusher dust to test and evaluate rovers and other equipment. The glovebox environments can safely investigate properties of high-quality lunar simulant and can explore dust interaction. Credit: CSIRO.

So how did the CSIRO go about recreating the Moon terrain?  

“The Moon regolith is a mixture of rock, mineral and glass, melded together from the heat of micrometeoroid impacts. The Moon is exposed to space weathering processes, including micrometeorites, solar radiation and extreme temperatures. These processes lead to the powdery, sharp and sticky (electrostatically charged) nature of the regolith," said Dr Ralston.   

He explained that the composition of their fake lunar dust at the ISRU facility was based on a crushed basaltic mix.

“We used it to emulate broad terrain profiles and features of the Lunar surface. This crusher dust is safe to interact with, and is ideal for activities such as investigating robotic traversability or exploring the durability of resource acquisition methods.”

The second type of fabricated lunar dust accurately simulated both mineralogy and mechanic characteristics of the samples returned from the Apollo missions from the 1970s.

“We have two types of lunar regolith simulants for representing the two major lunar topographies: Mare (lowlands) and Highlands,” said Dr Ralston.

“These simulants are ideal for sensor technology development and systematic evaluation dust interactions with different types of equipment.”

“The Lunar mare simulant is a general representative mare (lowland) simulant for the near side of the Moon. It is modelled after the average samples of Mare regolith gathered during the Apollo missions.

“It is 90% basaltic cinder and 10% anorthosite. The cohesion, particle size distribution, and geotechnical and terra-mechanical properties of this simulant are good approximations for Mare lunar regolith.

“The Lunar highlands simulant provides a high-fidelity, mineral-based simulant appropriate for a generic or average highlands location on the Moon. The highlands simulant is made of more than a single terrestrial lithology to accurately capture the texture of lunar highland regolith by combining both mineral and rock fragments (i.e., polymineralic grains) in accurate proportions. The particle size distribution of the simulant is targeted to match that of typical Apollo soils.”

This ISRU facility is located at CSIRO’s Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies, just outside Brisbane’s CBD, and is home to other testing facilities including the remote management centre, resource processing systems, navigation lab, the robotics innovation centre, and a remote testing range.

“Integration and access to other facilities and equipment on site is another advantage that will benefit future users of our facility,” Dr Ralston said.