Theme 3

Protecting Our Explorers

Moon Dust in the Wind
By Ali Sundermier

It was the late 1960s, and the world was awed by what the United States was accomplishing in space. Landing men on the moon seemed the stuff of science fiction in 1969 but by the time the Apollo program ended three years later 12 American astronauts had firmly planted their space boots on the Moon’s surface, boldly stomping where no human had stomped before.

And kicking up a lot of lunar dust in their wake.

In the months leading up to the first Moon landing, NASA’s scientists could only guess what surprises might await Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren as they took their famous giant leaps for mankind. Moon dust turned out to be one of them. The spectacularly fine material stuck to the astronauts’ space suits, and when they returned to their spacecraft the dust became airborne, finding its way into their lungs until they erupted in fits of sneezing and coughing.

Forty-six years later, scientists are still unsure about the effects of lunar dust on the human body. That’s why one of the RIS4E project’s four themes—called “Protecting Our Explorers”—is devoted to investigating how material similar to lunar dust reacts chemically when it comes in contact with human tissue. The scientists are studying both the immediate reaction on human skin and lungs and the potential long-term effects of exposure to lunar dust.

“It’s a frontier we don’t know too much about,” said Martin Schoonen, a geochemist and medical geologist who initiated the project while at Stony Brook University. Although Schoonen is still involved in the research, he stepped aside as theme lead when he moved full-time to Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Schoonen said that the Apollo mission showed that people react very strongly to lunar dust after just a few hours of exposure. “If we’re going to seriously push into exploration of other airless bodies, it’s likely going to be a case where humans are going to be on these surfaces for days to weeks to longer,” he said.

It’s not just a lunar phenomenon. Schoonen has been studying the reactivity of mineral dust for more than a decade and says that certain types of mineral dust on Earth have long been observed to cause negative effects on the human body. In one study, Schoonen and his team examined the effects of dust inhalation on servicemen stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He described what happened to a healthy New York City police officer who enlisted in the armed forces and came home from Iraq with serious lung ailments due to the fine-grained dust particles in the environment.

“We found mineral grains that had basically stuck in the lung,” Schoonen said. “The lung had formed hard tissue around it. The lung stiffened and was no longer functional in those areas. He just wasn’t getting as much air as he would normally get. He went from a half-marathon runner to somebody who has trouble walking.”

Medical research has shown that when people are exposed to fine-grained quartz dust in coal mines or during sandblasting operations, they end up with all kinds of lung diseases. By studying the effects of the fine-grained lunar dust, Schoonen said, he hopes scientists can learn whether it could induce similar lung damage.

Joel Hurowitz, RIS4E’s new Theme 3 lead, simulates the effect of lunar conditions on minerals in his lab at Stony Brook. He uses analog minerals found in places with similar conditions to the moon, or minerals simulated in a lab. He uses a machine called a planetary ball mill to grind up the minerals and produce a very fine-grained mineral powder, similar to what the Apollo astronauts found on the Moon.

“The Moon is covered in this really fine-grained dust that we call a planetary regolith,” Hurowitz said. “That dust is created by all of the meteorite impacts that smack into these surfaces over time. So you have a big rock that’s sitting out there for millions of years that’s getting bombarded by all these little meteorites and micro-meteorites and pulverized into fine powder.”

He combines the powder with a liquid such as human lung fluid, causing it to release unstable compounds called reactive oxygen species. A machine called an electron paramagnetic resonance spectrometer bombards the solution with microwaves and pushes the solution through a magnetic field. The process essentially creates a chemical fingerprint for the sample, identifying the types and amounts of reactive oxygen species produced.

The experiment has three phases, Hurowitz said. The first phase involves the testing of natural minerals found on Earth that are similar to what can be found on the moon. The second tests synthetic materials produced in a lab, or simulants, that are even closer to what might be found on the moon. The final phase uses real mineral samples taken from the Moon. Because these lunar samples are so rare and precious, scientists need to perfect their tests before reaching that final stage.

Hurowitz and his team feed the results of their experiments to biomedical researchers at the Stony Brook School of Medicine who are also studying the effects of lunar dust. He said that one of the most exciting parts of this project is collaborating with scientists from many different disciplines. “With SSERVI, you’ve got people from all over Stony Brook, all over other universities and research institutions,” he said. “You really get to have this cross-disciplinary science effort going on that you don’t normally get a chance to do.”

Stony Brook biomedical researchers Bruce Demple and Stella Tsirka are two of those collaborators. Demple is studying the long-term effects of lunar dust at a cellular level, focusing on damage to DNA and mitochondria caused by free radicals, highly reactive molecules that can destabilize other molecules, causing changes in the body. Tsirka, meanwhile, is looking at the inflammatory processes that take place when mammal cells are exposed to the lunar environment. Demple said their studies overlap because inflammation can result in excessive free radicals.

Tsirka explained that the goal is to help NASA scientists understand the risks and dangers so they can mitigate them for future astronauts. “How do they prevent these explorers from having to deal with long-term health effects of exposure to these toxic materials?” Tsirka said. “Long term, it’s important to know if the safety precautions we take when we send people out to space are sufficient.”

Although the project is still in its early phases, and it is too soon to determine the long-term effects of lunar dust, the scientists already have found some surprising results in the immediate reactivity of the minerals.

“Initially, we didn’t have much of a sense of the reactivity of these materials,” Hurowitz said. He was startled by the fact that minerals that are common to places like the Moon and Mars are as reactive as he and the other researchers have found them to be.

“Imagine this dust being lodged in the lungs for 20 years,” Hurowitz said. “We’re trying to help NASA understand the things they need to worry about so they can mitigate against them and prevent these explorers from having to deal with the long-term health effects of exposure to these toxic materials.”

The Four Themes of RIS4E: Pathways to Space

Theme 1

Airless weather and extreme temperature fluctuations in space can alter samples in ways we don’t experience on Earth. To best interpret what the remote sensing data means, scientists must first do a lot of in-depth laboratory analysis on meteorite samples and lunar simulants to understand what data results from weathering. This laboratory data will go into libraries where it will be used to better analyze future remote sensing data.

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Theme 2

RIS4E and the broader NASA initiative supporting it are about future exploration of planetary bodies. Theme 2—“Maximizing Exploration Opportunities”—is like a simulated advance team: Researchers going to places on Earth that are similar to the surfaces of the Moon and Mars to test and develop equipment that will help future astronauts know what to do when they get there. The expedition to Hawaii’s Mount Kilauea was Theme 2 in action.

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Theme 3

It was the late 1960s, and the world was awed by what the United States was accomplishing in space. Landing men on the moon seemed the stuff of science fiction in 1969 but by the time the Apollo program ended three years later 12 American astronauts had firmly planted their space boots on the Moon’s surface, boldly stomping where no human had stomped before.

And kicking up a lot of lunar dust in their wake.

Read more

Theme 4

What were the conditions of the early solar system? How did life form? To investigate this, scientists working on Theme 4 of the RIS4E project are using X-rays to probe extraterrestrial material, like interplanetary dust and meteorites, which might contain answers, or at least clues, about the formation of the world as we know it.

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