February 28, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Dust a Major Problem on Non-Earth Worlds

You can’t just beam down to a planet and start walking around. That dust under your feet can cause major problems.

As the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 approaches next year, the moon landings sound like ancient history to many people alive today. Fewer still remember the fear of lunar dust that occupied planners of the moon missions. “It was a real concern,” remembers JPL scientist Dr Henry Richter, whose team prepared for the Surveyor missions—the first soft landings by robotic spacecraft. A minority of scientists, including Dr Thomas Gold, warned that the craft might slowly sink out of sight in the deep dust. That was not the case when Surveyor 1 landed in 1966, reassuring Apollo astronauts in training. We remember the old videos of the astronauts hopping around on a solid surface, kicking up a little dust with their feet. No problem, right? Wrong.

David Stacey of the University of Western Australia, reports Phys.org, worries about a “dust dilemma” facing future lunar astronauts.

The world’s foremost authority on lunar dust is suggesting the powder-like substance, which is finer than talcum powder and more abrasive than sandpaper, remains a major risk-management problem hampering upcoming space expeditions.

Lunar dust is considered the number one environmental problem on the moon and can cause unpredictable hazards for both robots and humans operating on the dust-covered surface.

In 2014, China’s little Yutu rover became incapacitated soon after landing, most likely due to the dust. It was a “wakeup call needed to change half-a-century of complacency towards the problem.” The Apollo moonwalks were relatively short (the longest being 7.25 hours by Apollo 17 astronauts), but even with that short an exposure, the astronauts fussed about the dust. It got into everything, covering the spacesuits and jamming equipment. The moon buggies kicked up dust onto them, and once the astronauts got back inside the Lunar Module, the dust irritated the astronauts’ eyes and skin.

“Past expeditions have been plagued by dust with issues arising from clogged equipment and zippers, wrist locks, faceplates and a leaking spacesuit. The most alarming characteristic was how quickly and irreversibly problems could strike,” he said.

Ceremony on the Plain at Hadley, by Alan Bean

Lunar dust forms from breakup of rocks by high-speed particles impacting the surface. With no atmosphere or wind, the grains follow ballistic trajectories, but can soar around the surface from distant impacts. The dust grains tend to be sharp and jagged under a microscope. Because there is no surface water, the dust collects static electricity, too, making it cling to objects.

Astrobiologists recently got all excited about widespread “water” on the moon (Space.com), but what they mean by water is not wet stuff you can use to wipe off the dust. It’s mainly attached to minerals in the form of hydroxyl ions (OH), concentrated in ices at the poles in perennially shadowed craters. Scientists believe that it is produced by the solar wind impacting oxygen atoms in the dusty regolith. With sufficient technology, space colonizers might be able to collect enough of the stuff to make water and fuel that could sustain an outpost, but they will still have to deal with the inescapable dust.

Some cosmogonists, according to another Phys.org article, wonder how the discovery of widespread ‘water’ will affect lunar origin stories. Did the moon start out wet? Some of them have figured out ways to tweak their impact models for the moon’s origin to allow for more hydrogen and oxygen. But according to the Murphyism “Every solution breeds new problems,” they now have to figure out “why the Moon is depleted of potassium, sodium, and other volatile elements.” Maybe the Earth took it all, some of them surmise; “Or potentially they were part of the Moon when it first accreted from the post-collision disk but were later lost.”

Mars, Too

Remember NASA’s Phoenix Lander on Mars? It landed near the north pole in 2008 and outlasted its 90-day mission, continuing to work for five months. Orbiting spacecraft can still see it down there, says Space.com, with its parachute and heat shield off to one side. Comparison photos taken years apart show something interesting: Phoenix is being covered with dust. “Dust May Be Burying NASA’s Phoenix Lander on Mars,” reports Mike Wall. The photo caption says, “In the latter photo, dust obscures much of what was visible two months after the landing.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), still in orbit, took a photo on December 21, 2017 of the little dead craft. Scientists, by using “an animated-blink comparison with an image from about two months after the May 25, 2008, landing shows that patches of ground that had been darkened by removal of dust during landing events have become coated with dust again.” That was just in nine years; how much dust accumulation would occur in billions of years?

Mars weather sometimes entrains dust in global dust storms that make the entire Mars surface appear indistinct from Earth. Another article on Space.com considers that the planet’s dust could have contributed to the loss of its atmosphere. The dust storms tend to throw hydrogen off into space, leading to more dryness over time. Previous research on Martian dust devils suggests that static electricity is a severe problem there, too, as it is on the moon (30 October 2006, 2 August 2006).

Dust and Habitability

Astrobiologists continue speculating about life on other planets beyond what the data will bear. Certainly dust, static electricity and dry conditions must be considered in any model of habitability. For instance, Saturn’s moon Titan suffers from a similar static cling problem (31 March 2017) that should dampen hopes for life there. It should, but it doesn’t. The storytellers continue to tease the public with suggestive headlines like “Does Titan’s Hydrocarbon Soup Hold A Recipe for Life?” by Lisa Kaspen-Powell of Astrobiology Magazine. After a large telescope located in Chile’s Atacama Desert discovered spectral lines for vinyl cyanide in the Titanian gooey lakes, astrobiologists went nuts with speculations that it could form a basis for a hydrocarbon-based life – a kind of life completely unknown by scientific observation, but only knowable through the eyes of imagination.

Speaking of the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth, astrobiologists are using it again for astrobiology propaganda. Recent measurements reported in PNAS show that indigenous bacteria can live in this hostile place, even though it only gets rain every decade or more. Headline writers who don’t know any better, like someone at Fox News, and Jonathan Amos at the BBC News, chirp out fake optimism, saying things like “Bugs found in the driest spot on Earth could indicate life on Mars.” and “Atacama’s lessons about life on Mars.” The blame goes to lead author (and lead propagandist) Dirk Schulze-Makuch, who titillates reporters with phony comparisons, like the following:

These hardy organisms are of interest because they may serve as a template for how life could survive on Mars.

“All the stresses you have in the Atacama, you have on Mars, too – just a little tick more,” TU Berlin’s Dr Dirk Schulze-Makuch told BBC News.

No evidence, in other words, for the claim about life on Mars: just a high perhapsimaybecouldness index. But even that speculation is built on a flawed syllogism, i.e., Major premise: Earth life can thrive in hostile environments. Minor premise: Mars has hostile environments. Conclusion: Mars has life. Astrobiology fails here on two counts: empiricism and logic. Schulze-Makuch and the lemming reporters who follow him off the logical cliff are not even thinking about the other problems, like deadly dust and static electricity.


The lemming reporters are also following secular astrobiologists off a cliff at Saturn’s little moon Enceladus. First, the headlines:

  • Could methane on Saturn’s moon Enceladus be a sign of life? (Fox News)
  • Alien life in our Solar System? Study hints at Saturn’s moon (Phys.org)
  • Could Methane on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus Be a Sign of Life? (Mike Wall, Space.com)
  • We may have already found signs of alien microbes on Enceladus (Andy Coghlan, New Scientist)

Good grief; now what? Here’s the empirical data: scientists detected some methane in the geyser plumes of this little moon. What this shows is that reporters can get drunk on methane as well as on Darwine. At first, the excitement was all about water coming out (even though it consists of salty ice crystals and dust). Now, it’s a gas:

To be clear, study team members aren’t claiming that Enceladus’ methane is biological; after all, the substance can be produced geologically as well (by reactions between rock and hot water, in fact). But the new results could help inform the search for life on ocean moons in the solar system, Rittmann said.

This reasoning, too, is based on a flawed syllogism: Major premise: Some “methanogen” life forms on Earth can metabolize hydrocarbons and give off methane. Minor premise: Enceladus has methane. Conclusion: Enceladus has life.

“From an astronomical perspective, future missions to Enceladus or other icy moons should be equipped to be able to detect methanogenic biosignatures related to methanogens, like certain lipids or ratios of certain carbon isotopes,” he said.

Isn’t that what the hype is all about? Equipment needs manufacturing. Missions with equipment need a space program. Astrobiologists need a reason to have a job. The public needs hype to influence the government. NASA: Send more money!

From dust the astrobiologists came; to dust they will return. Their bad ideas will follow them. Truth abides forever.

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