NASA invites students to provide solutions for moon landing dust clouds

Lunar dust can damage spacesuits, machinery, and equipment.
Jijo Malayil
An illustration of an Artemis astronaut looking out at the lunar surface
An illustration of an Artemis astronaut looking out at the lunar surface

In a quest to expand human settlement to the moon and beyond, NASA and industry partners are developing landing systems to take astronauts from orbit to the lunar surface with its mission Artemis. However, a small but pertinent issue of excessive dust on the surface is posing a considerable challenge for fulfilling such explorations. 

Lunar dust, which consists of minute particles, can affect spacesuits, machinery, and equipment, causing damage in the long run. Such a complication will pose health risks for astronauts as well. 

To counter this, the agency is seeking ideas from university students for solutions to mitigate the issue related to dusty landings. NASA’s new Human Lander Challenge invites college students to research ways to regulate the plume effect, the process in which a cloud of dust is stirred up by lunar vehicles when rocket engines are used to provide thrust for a smooth landing on unprepared surfaces. Nasa had conducted a similar program for students, through its Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-changing challenge in 2020 for solutions to the same issue. 

The Artemis mission plans to land the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon, opening a pathway for a long-term, sustainable lunar presence and future missions to Mars.

Reducing dust formation is critical for long-term lunar settlements

As the surface of the moon is covered with a granular, rocky material called regolith, it can be flung into the air during the landing and liftoff of various space vehicles. Therefore, regulating these effects is of prime importance for NASA for safe lunar surface access. 

According to the team, a long-term human presence on and around the Moon will require addressing challenges posed by lunar dust to these complex missions. “Besides creating a more challenging landing environment, disturbed lunar dust also can damage other assets NASA plans to establish on the Moon’s surface, like habitats, mobility systems, scientific experiments, and other critical infrastructure," said Ashley Korzun, principal investigator for plume surface interaction, NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in a media release.

A rare opportunity for the Artemis generation

Students from colleges in the United States are expected to brainstorm innovative, systems-level solutions to minimize and manage the impacts on future lunar exploration systems.

NASA has indicated that ideas should focus on the "development of dust shields, creating flight instrumentation dedicated to managing plume surface interactions, finding ways to see through the dust cloud during landing, or tracking dust during ascent and descent."

A batch of up to 12 teams will be shortlisted to participate in the inaugural Human Lander Challenge Forum to be held in June 2024 in Alabama. A stipend of $7,000 will be provided for each team to develop a technical paper and any associated design models or prototypes. Total prize money of $18,000 will be shared by the top-three teams with the winning entry taking home $10,000.  

The Human Lander Challenge is funded by NASA’s Human Landing System Program and operations of which are done by the National Institute of Aerospace.

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