NASA Funds R&D into Mitigating Dust for Future Lunar Explorers

Gene Cernan covered in moon dust after walking on the lunar surface. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Moon dust poses a major challenge to NASA as the space agency prepares to return astronauts to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years. The abrasive, glass-like dust sticks to spacesuits, irritates throats and lungs, and threatens to clog vital equipment.

To address these challenges, NASA has selected lunar dust mitigation projects from Force Engineering, Innovative Aerospace, Smart Material Solutions and Cornerstone Research Group for continued funding under its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The Phase II grants are worth up to $750,000 each. The companies previously received smaller SBIR Phase I grants.

Force Engineer’s project is focused on keeping dust off extravehicular suits that astronauts will wear on the surface.

“Force Engineering’s SBIR Phase I developed an innovative shell fabric and Environmental Protection Garment (EPG) construction using high-strength conductive fiber textiles to provide lightweight environmental and micrometeroid protection with active and passive dust mitigation at 25% weight savings,” the company’s proposal summary said.

“SBIR Phase II conducts system design and testing to confirm environmental protection and to refine and optimize active dust mitigation using conductive textiles to actively manage the electrical charge of the suit to match operating environment charge state, or actively repel dust using microprocessor control to tailored charge states of the suit to repel dust,” the document added.

Innovative Aerospace is developing a set of lunar dust mitigation devices designed to protect venting components used during lunar extravehicular activities.

“Many Lunar Exploration areas may benefit from Lunar Dust Mitigation Devices, primarily components that depend on inhaling or exhaling gas while prohibiting lunar dust transmission, such as purge valves and vents being protected,” the proposal summary said. “They may also be used to act as a breathing apparatus for astronauts within the Lunar Lander, as airborne dust presents a known crew health risk or to protect propulsion components. Development may allow dynamic movement to protect suit bearings, Lunar Rover Components and solar collection panels.”

Smart Material Solutions is developing a passive approach to dust mitigation to protect critical components.

“The Phase I research demonstrated a highly effective nanotexture that reduced coverage of a lunar dust simulant on a polycarbonate substrate by 93%. Fabrication of these surfaces was based on thermal embossing using metal molds created with our patented Nanocoining technology.,” the proposal summary said. “During Phase II, Nanocoining and tangential processes including high-throughput roll-to-roll embossing will be used to create an optimized surface texture at scale in relevant space-grade materials.”

Cornerstone Research Group (CRG) is developing “a dust tolerant joint to facilitate reliable payload reconfiguration and automated in-space construction in regolith inundated environments. CRG will demonstrate a lightweight, mechanically robust joint capable of securing structures while exposed to regolith particles of similar size to what are known in various space environments such as the lunar surface.

“This state-of-the-art dust tolerable joint leverages CRG’s shape memory polymer (SMP) reversible joining system, which facilitates self-alignment, low dexterity operation, capture and lock features, electrical isolation, and connectivity feedback if desired,” the proposal summary said.

Summaries of the four proposals follow.

Improved Environmental Protection Garment (IEPG) Fabric
Subtopic: Lunar Dust Mitigation Technology for Spacesuits

SBIR Phase II Award: up to $750,000

Force Engineering, Inc
Chandler, Ariz.

Principal Investigator: William Perciballi

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 4
End: 7

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

SBIR Phase II proposal to develop active dust mitigation spacesuit fabrics that provide micrometeroid protection at 25% weight savings using engineered materials. Current Extra-vehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) suits do not provide protection against abrasive lunar dust because their fabric construction attracts and retains dust. Force Engineering’s SBIR Phase I developed an innovative shell fabric and Environmental Protection Garment (EPG) construction using high-strength conductive fiber textiles to provide lightweight environmental and micrometeroid protection with active and passive dust mitigation at 25% weight savings.

SBIR Phase II conducts system design and testing to confirm environmental protection and to refine and optimize active dust mitigation using conductive textiles to actively manage the electrical charge of the suit to match operating environment charge state, or actively repel dust using microprocessor control to tailored charge states of the suit to repel dust.

Force Engineering combines several well-developed technologies into a practical outer layer design, which will provide excellent protection from dust, fire, thermal, ultraviolet (UV) radiation, impact penetration and cut/puncture. The new garment protection system will be integrated to minimize weight and maximize flexibility such as to not prohibit, degrade, or interfere with the use of equipment. Full scale prototypes will be fabricated for puncture, dust, and abrasion tests as well as hyper-velocity impact testing to confirm micrometeroid protection.

Potential NASA Applications

Weight savings by creation of smart/multifunctional textile and composite products that enable lighter weight electronics, communication, and power transfer in a damage tolerant, redundant circuits.

Astronaut health monitoring using eTextile. Improved spacesuit capability to integrate redundant textile-based sensor, power, data busses for a wired and continuously monitored astronaut and spacesuit. Ability to detect real-time degradation and damage to spacesuit, gloves, and other garments and to manage garment life, maintenance, and condition.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Active dust/particle/microbe mitigation. Sensor and electronics integration in soldier body armor and other wearable gear to save weight. Wearable eTextile technology for commercial electronics and flexible electronics to create smart fabrics and integrate electronics and microprocessor capability into garments for productivity, entertainment, remote sensing medical diagnostics capability.

xEMU Lunar Dust Mitigation Devices
Subtopic: Lunar Dust Mitigation Technology for Spacesuits

SBIR Phase II Award: up to $750,000

Innovative Aerospace, LLC
Southwick, Mass.

Principal Investigator: Thomas Stapleton

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 4
End: 5

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

During NASA SBIR Phase I Contract #80NSSC21C0230 Innovative Aerospace LLC developed a set of Lunar Dust Mitigation Devices (LDMDs) in response to the NASA SBIR solicitation Z13.03. It stated the desire to protect six xEMU venting components during lunar External Vehicular Exploration (EVA) from the threat that glass like lunar dust particles presents against them. It became apparent during Phase I research that mathematical models representing dust adherence and removal force and the ability to test dust mitigation devices, in a representative environment, were both lacking.

Two research scientists have joined our team to develop a mathematical model during Phase II. The model intends to predict charged lunar dusts ability to adhere to xEMU surfaces and how dust particles may be removed by associated purge flows. Auburn University has previously emulated Dusty Plasma in their lab, which allows charged lunar dust to levitate above the surface. They have agreed to employ this technique to support our Phase II efforts. They intend to test a series of Protective Element samples and completed Lunar Dust Mitigation Devices (LDMD) in an enclosed chamber filled with charged, simulated lunar dust. The plan is to use observed behavioral trends and empirical data to update and ideally correlate the developed model.

Having a model that predicts lunar dust particle behavior is central to the Phase II proposal. This approach allows LDMD design advancement to be based on scientific data and improves the likelihood of these elements becoming certified for flight. A set of Phase II prototypes will be fabricated using Additive Manufacturing (AM). This will allow complex internal flow geometry to be included. The chosen manufacturing technology is closely aligned with NASA intentions of using AM to reduce the logistics cost and difficulty of supplying a complex cache of spare parts.

Potential NASA Applications

Many Lunar Exploration areas may benefit from Lunar Dust Mitigation Devices, primarily components that depend on inhaling or exhaling gas while prohibiting lunar dust transmission, such as purge valves and vents being protected. They may also be used to act as a breathing apparatus for astronauts within the Lunar Lander, as airborne dust presents a known crew health risk or to protect propulsion components. Development may allow dynamic movement to protect suit bearings, Lunar Rover Components and solar collection panels.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Many companies are currently developing Lunar and eventually Martian Exploration equipment that may benefit from included protection devices, including Lunar Landers, robots, solar collection panels, terrestrial mining/manufacturing. Modified forms may solve related challenges on Earth, including coal handling, cement fabrication, mining, woodworking, pharmaceutical, recycling and agriculture.

Passive Nano-and Micro-Textured Dust-Mitigation Surfaces in Space-Grade Materials
Made with a Highly-Scalable Fabrication Process
Subtopic: Active and Passive Dust Mitigation Surfaces

SBIR Phase II Award: up to $750,000

Smart Material Solutions, Inc.
Raleigh, NC

Principal Investigator: Stephen Furst

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 4
End: 6

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

With the imminent return of humans and infrastructure to the Moon through Artemis, the challenges posed by lunar dust have returned to the forefront. During the Apollo missions, dust clogged chamber seals, damaged spacesuits, degraded mechanical gears, and limited the range of the lunar rover. The issue remains critical for both manned and unmanned lunar or planetary missions, where key infrastructures can be degraded over time by highly abrasive dust.

While active dust-mitigation approaches consume energy to remove dust from a surface, passive approaches typically aim to reduce surface energy to make dust less prone to sticking. In this project, a passive approach will be developed to add a nanotexture to critical components using scalable processes, thereby reducing contact area and adhesion force.

The Phase I research demonstrated a highly effective nanotexture that reduced coverage of a lunar dust simulant on a polycarbonate substrate by 93%. Fabrication of these surfaces was based on thermal embossing using metal molds created with our patented Nanocoining technology. During Phase II, Nanocoining and tangential processes including high-throughput roll-to-roll embossing will be used to create an optimized surface texture at scale in relevant space-grade materials.

In addition, a team at the UT, Austin will further develop a simulated lunar environment to study particle adhesion physics. Their goal will be to understand how texture geometries, surface energy, low-energy monolayer coatings, vacuum, and humidity affect dust mitigation and to test the surfaces’ durability to thermal, abrasive, and repeated dust loading.

Deliverables will include >1 m2 of nanotextured polycarbonate, along with batch-scale samples of textured polyimide, PET, and FEP. Further, the best-performing textures will be applied to relevant applications, including a radiator strip, visible camera optic, and solar-panel coating, for demonstration and testing.

Potential NASA Applications

  • Solar-panel cover glass coatings
  • Radiator strips
  • Camera optics
  • Drag-reduction surfaces
  • Metamaterials for sensing and energy harvesting

Potential Non-NASA Applications

  • Micro optics for augmented and virtual reality
  • Light extraction films for LED/OLED displays and lighting
  • Tuned spectral absorbers for camouflage
  • Anti-microbial surfaces

Dust Tolerant Joint for In-Space Assembly
Subtopic: Dust-Tolerant Mechanisms

SBIR Phase II Award: up to $750,000

Cornerstone Research Group, Inc.
Miamisburg, Ohio

Principal Investigator: Jason Hermiller

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 4
End: 5

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

Cornerstone Research Group (CRG) proposes the development of a dust tolerant joint to facilitate reliable payload reconfiguration and automated in-space construction in regolith inundated environments. CRG will demonstrate a lightweight, mechanically robust joint capable of securing structures while exposed to regolith particles of similar size to what are known in various space environments such as the lunar surface. This state-of-the-art dust tolerable joint leverages CRG’s shape memory polymer (SMP) reversible joining system, which facilitates self-alignment, low dexterity operation, capture and lock features, electrical isolation, and connectivity feedback if desired.

Additionally, CRG’s dust tolerant reversible joint provides a scalable, modular joining capability that can be used with autonomous assembly systems. In Phase I, CRG successfully demonstrated the functionality of the reversible joint in the presence of regolith simulant on the order of hundreds of cycles. Leveraging CRG’s prior development work on shape memory polymer fastening systems and mechanical design expertise, the proposed R&D herein will provide a multifunctional dust tolerable reversible joint with technology readiness level (TRL) of 5 at the conclusion of the Phase II effort.

Potential NASA Applications

  • In-Space structural assembly and construction
  • Moon to Mars Campaign
  • Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) components
  • Satellites, solar arrays, and deployable structures
  • Manned and unmanned space vehicles
  • Payload attachment and removal

Potential Non-NASA Applications

  • DoD and commercial satellite construction, expansion, and refurbishment
  • Reusable launch vehicles and payload delivery systems
  • Space transportation vehicles
  • Remote terrestrial shelter construction
  • Industrial fasteners
  • Blind fasteners & removal anchors
  • Anti-tamper or security enclosures