Scientists Determine Moon Dust Could Destroy Lung And Brain Cells, Damage DNA In Future Astronauts

Tuesday, 08 May 2018 - 11:33AM
NASA
Astrobiology
Moon
Tuesday, 08 May 2018 - 11:33AM
Scientists Determine Moon Dust Could Destroy Lung And Brain Cells, Damage DNA In Future Astronauts
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On Earth, dust is treated as little more than a fact of life: an accumulation of detritus to be swept up, vacuumed, and wiped from surfaces. On the moon, however, dust is far more abundant, unsweepable, destructive and – according to a new NASA-funded study by researchers at Stony Brook University – potentially lethal to cells.

Lunar dust has been an object of concern since the early Apollo missions, where astronauts dealt with the abrasive substance sticking to space suits, scratching glass, causing a kind of lunar "hay fever," and damaging equipment. In a technical crew debriefing, Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan, who once described moon dust as smelling like "spent gunpowder," said

Opening quote
"I think dust is probably one of our greatest inhibitors to a nominal operation on the Moon. I think we can overcome other physiological or physical or mechanical problems except dust."
Closing quote


Part of the problem with lunar dust is its composition: it is more akin to broken glass with the consistency of snow and the texture of sandpaper than it is to the lint that sticks to your ceiling fan. That's because it is mostly glass, or, more accurately, silicon dioxide particulates turned into glass through the heat and violence of meteoroids slamming into the moon. "These impacts," NASA says, "which have been going on for billions of years, fuse topsoil into glass and shatter the same into tiny pieces." Without an ocean to tumble and erode its surface, the dust, which NASA reports is also "rich in iron, calcium and magnesium bound up in minerals such as olivine and pyroxene" stays jagged, sharp and corrosive. To compound this issue, without an atmosphere, the moon's constant battery by solar winds electrostatically charges the dust, making it exceptionally sticky.

To better understand the forces at work here, try to imagine gray flour made up of broken glass with a severe case of static cling. Now imagine walking into an environment where it has lain undisturbed for millions of years on a surface with just 16.6% of the Earth's gravity. You can see the problem. 

But the physical properties of moon dust aren't the only concern. Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, who suffered an allergic reaction to lunar dust during his mission, underscored the importance of ascertaining its potential health hazards. "Dust is the No. 1 environmental problem on the moon," Schmitt said in a 2005 NASA workshop. "We need to understand what the (biological) effects are, because there's always the possibility that engineering might fail."

According to the Stony Brook University School of Medicine scientists, the effects may be exceptionally deleterious. The study, entitled "Assessing Toxicity and Nuclear and Mitochondrial DNA Damage Caused by Exposure of Mammalian Cells to Lunar Regolith Simulants," found "significant cell toxicity in neuronal and lung cell lines in culture, as well as DNA damage" in cells exposed to simulated lunar dust. In addition, the DNA damage was noted as possibly potentiating cancer by "stimulating cell proliferation to replace dead tissue." The finest particles achieved the greatest "significant lethality," killing up to 90% of human lung and mouse neurons, perhaps through increased cellular uptake of the particulates.

The researchers concluded that, at the very least, respiratory measures should be taken.

Opening quote
"Clearly, avoidance of lunar dust inhalation will be important for future explorers, but with increased human activity on the Moon it is likely that adventitious exposure will occur, particularly for individuals spending long periods of time on that body."
Closing quote


Before you plan your trip to the moon, you may want to consider a slightly more terrestrial destination: ideally, one where dust is something you can just sweep under the rug and not something that will rip your skin off and mutate your DNA.

Science
Space
NASA
Astrobiology
Moon
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