Simulated moon dirt is turning up some real challenges for future lunar missions

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Lunar dirt and rocksLunar dirt and rocks
Off Planet Research’s co-owners, Vince Roux and Melissa Roth, hold samples of lunar dirt and moon rocks. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

RENTON, Wash. — When commercial ventures start setting up shop on the moon, they may well run  into nasty clouds of grit that clog up airways and gum up equipment.

Those are just the sorts of unpleasant surprises that Off Planet Research wants to help those ventures avoid.

The Lacey, Wash.-based company produces simulated soil that can be used for earthly testing of lunar operations.

“It doesn’t behave at all as you’d expect,” aerospace engineer Vince Roux, one of the venture’s co-owners, said here today at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace conference. “You ask yourself, ‘Why is it clinging to that spot on the wall?’ ”

It turns out that lunar soil, technically known as regolith, has dramatically different properties that depend on its precise composition as well as its water content.

That could make a big difference for NASA and commercial entities that plan to extract frozen H2O from the moon’s polar regions and convert it into drinkable water, breathable oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel.

“Anorthosite, which is the primary component in the highland, really loves volatiles, particularly water and alcohol,” Roux said. “So you’ve got to do more if you’re trying to extract from the highland environment than the lowland environment. Of course, the polar region is extensively highland.”

Roux and RothRoux and Roth
Off Planet Research’s Vince Roux and Melissa Roth geek out at an Apollo exhibit during the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas. (LPI Photo via Facebook)

Maggie Scholtz, a veteran of NASA’s Mars rover missions, observed that moon dust is much more abrasive than the Red Planet’s dust.

“You get a weathering process that happens on Mars that rounds off all of the edges of the individual particles, which you don’t get on the moon,” said Scholtz, who is now president for space and aerospace at Synchronous, a Seattle engineering firm. “Which is why you have all those jagged edges that destroy any hardware you throw at it.”

Roux said slight changes in hardware design can make a big difference when it comes to the wear and tear. The precise angle and size of the threads on a bolt can determine whether or not particles of moon dust grind their way destructively through the metal as the bolt is turned.

“I would hate to be on the moon discovering all this,” he said. “I would hate to send equipment to the moon, and it falls apart because we used the wrong pitch on the thread of a bolt.”

Discovering the properties of moon dirt in advance is exactly why Off Planet Research built a climate-controlled lab, featuring a 700-square-foot test bed filled with 30 tons of simulated lunar regolith.

The company can custom-mix different blends of simulated soil to reflect the geology of a specific area of the moon, like mixing paint at the hardware store. For example, the European Space Agency recently ordered up a batch of “Far Side Highland” simulant, Roux said.

A penny leaves a sharp imprint when pressed into a pile of simulated lunar soil reflecting the composition found in the lunar maria. (Off Planet Research Photo)

There’s likely to be a rising demand for simulated moon dirt, thanks to NASA’s reinvigorated campaign to send astronauts back to the moon and set up permanent settlements.

Much of the effort is expected to fall on the shoulders of commercial partners. Within the next year or two, companies such as Moon Express and Astrobotic could be sending landers to the lunar surface under the aegis of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, could well follow with its Blue Moon lander.

Other companies are making plans to turn lunar water into rocket propellant that could be stored in refueling depots situated between Earth and the moon. “I’m one of those buyers of water on the moon,” said Dallas Bienhoff, a former Boeing space project manager who founded Cislunar Space Development Co. last year.

Off Planet Research’s dirt — which is rented, not sold — could help such ventures find out in advance what could happen to their hardware, and adjust their designs accordingly.

To anticipate the rush, Roux and Melissa Roth, the Lacey company’s other co-owner and lead researcher, are ramping up their dirt production rate.

“Our goal is to be able to produce at the rate of tons per day,” Roux said.



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