“The amount of damage [lunar dust] might cause to a spacecraft could be an order of magnitude worse than we believed.”

Dust to Dust

As NASA prepares to head back to the lunar surface for the first time in more than 50 years, a new theory suggests that the astronauts taking that giant second step for humanity might be way less safe doing so than anyone realized.

In an interview with Scientific American, University of Central Florida physicist Phil Metzger said that new findings about the potential pitfalls of rapidly moving and mega-toxic lunar dust— dubbed “sandblasts” mean astronauts likely need better safety standards to survive.

While researchers have known since the last time we went to the Moon that rocket sandblasts can harm equipment and create substantial erosion, issues with exactly how that occurred made figuring out best practices for astronaut, equipment, and surface safety for the forthcoming Artemis missions difficult.

This new theory, however, calls into question whether current protections are even adequate to survive the blast impact.

Blast Off

Metzger, in fact, co-wrote a NASA policy advising that small lunar landers not touch down within about 1.2 miles of the Apollo landing sites to protect the site from the crafts’ sandblasts. That length cutoff was apparently arbitrary and based on what a six-foot-tall person could see when looking out over the Moon’s horizon, SciAm reports.

There had been working theories about the danger of rocket sandblasts, but to Metzger, the numbers didn’t seem to quite fit.

In his latest theory, which was published in two parts by the journal Icarus, Metzger proposed that instead of stirring up dust and eroding the lunar surface away, the massive speed from rocket exhaust running parallel to the ground creates a sort of kinetic force that kicks dust up and out in a way more complicated way than previously thought.

As such, the tiny accelerated rocks that make up Moon dust may be moving at speeds four to ten times faster than scientists previously thought, which would mean that spacesuits and spacecraft would need to have extra reinforcements.

Ultimately, it will be up to NASA and the rest of the international spacefaring community to implement the physicist’s suggested changes before any of us make it back to the Moon, even as he continues to perfect his equations.

“The amount of damage [lunar dust] might cause to a spacecraft,” Metzger warned, “could be an order of magnitude worse than we believed.”

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