X

An Electron-Beam Dust Zapper for the Moon

View from Moon with Earth rising on the horizon
Elena11/Shutterstock

A lunar electron-beam zapper might sound like something you’d find in old Loony Toons cartoons. Still, it is a device currently under development by a team led by the University of Colorado Boulder. And while it won’t blast aliens, it might help solve a serious problem: moon dust.

Dastardly Dust

There are a lot of factors to consider when scientists plan manned trips to the moon or colonies living there. In light of things like food, water, air, and shelter, dust might not seem like that big a problem, but it certainly is a pesky one.

“It’s really annoying,” said Xu Wang, a research associate in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at CU Boulder. “Lunar dust sticks to all kinds of surfaces—spacesuits, solar panels, helmets—and it can damage equipment.”

Moondust, also known as regolith, is even more jagged than the dust here on Earth, and it has an electrical charge caused by being bathed in solar radiation. This charge is akin to static electricity and makes the dust extremely clingy.

So the researchers decided to use the dust’s own electrical properties against it. By shooting a stream of negatively charged electrons at simulated lunar dust in a vacuum chamber, they found that within a few minutes, the dust flew away. The method works because as the negative electrons accumulate between dust particles, they begin to repel each other, in much the same way the negative ends of two magnets would behave.

“The charges become so large that they repel each other, and then dust ejects off of the surface,” Wang said.

Electron Beam Shower?

The current method was able to clean surfaces about 75-85%, which isn’t quite enough to roll out a lunar dust buster just yet. But the researchers hope that as they continue to improve upon the work, it could become a cheaper and easier solution than other proposed methods to deal with moon dust, such as embedding spacesuits with electrodes.

Study coauthor Mihály Horányi, a professor in LASP and the Department of Physics at CU Boulder, thinks that one possible route would be building a special room that could blast suits and equipment with the electron beams to get them dust-free. “You could just walk into an electron beam shower to remove fine dust,” he said.

The research has been published in the peer-reviewed journal, Acta Astonautica.