News reports are giving conflicting information about the state of the Chang’E 3 rover Yutu. Some claim that the rover is dead while others indicate that it is responding to radio signals, although it is uncertain whether it will obtain full functionality. Despite this uncertainty, I’m reading reports attributing the demise of Yutu to the baneful effects of lunar dust. The idea being advanced is that the angular and abrasive dust of the lunar surface has probably jammed the moving parts of the rover and possibly coated parts of the structure, resulting in increasing heating of the rover during the lunar day.
There is no reason to believe that Yutu’s problems are related to dust. Lunar dust was a known factor before the flight of Chang’E 3 and given how well things have progressed to date, I cannot believe that its builders were ignorant of the possible negative effects of dust. Fears of these effects are greatly exaggerated. Dust was a problem during the Apollo program because we did not fully understand all of its properties when the equipment used during those missions was being designed. We have since accumulated an enormous amount of information on dust and have developed a variety of different strategies to cope with and mitigate problems. It is much more likely that software or some mechanical-electrical component has failed on the rover. This is harder to diagnose and fix (if possible), but don’t believe all the horror stories you are seeing about the “deadly dust of the Moon.”
It is important to understand the properties of lunar soil, along with its challenges and advantages in order to properly report on our current understanding of the lunar surface. Two U.S. lunar orbital missions, LRO and LADEE (selected to fly during the last administration) are currently orbiting the Moon and collecting more data.
Linked below is information about our current understanding of the properties, problems and promise of the Moon’s regolith.
“Another idea is to keep the suits outside, leaving the interior of the habitat completely dust free. But no matter how carefully we avoid it, some dust will get into places we want to keep clean. Brushing only seems to grind it into porous surfaces. But amazingly enough, we have found that much of the dust is magnetic. Vapor-deposited metallic iron coats the surfaces of many mineral and glass dust grains. This so-called “nanophase iron” (from its extremely small size) makes the dust easily attracted to a simple magnet. A brush made with magnetic bristles will clean surfaces of most of the dust. Incidentally, this same property permits the lunar soil to be fused into glass using low-energy microwaves, allowing us to “pave” roads and landing pads near and around the lunar outpost and to make bricks for construction and radiation shielding…”
Regolith: The Other Lunar Resource
“…The ground up regolith is a readily available building material for construction on the lunar surface. It is an aggregate in the same sense as on Earth, but with some significant differences. We could make lime and water from the surface materials of the Moon but it is very time and energy intensive. Thus, we must adapt and modify terrestrial practice to take advantage of the unique nature of lunar materials. The fractal grain size in the regolith means that we can obtain any specific size fraction we want through mechanical sorting (raking and sieving). Instead of water-set lime-based cement, we can use glass to cement particulate material together. Regolith can be sintered into bricks and blocks, as well as roads and landing pads, using thermal energy (passive solar, concentrated by focusing mirrors) or microwaves that can melt grain edges into a hard, durable ceramic…”
The LADEE mission seeks the faintest of lunar phenomena
“…The day and night hemispheres have different fluxes of electrons from the solar wind and thus, the presence of the terminator can induce an electrical charge in surface materials. It is postulated that this charge might levitate smaller dust particles such that they would hover above the surface. LADEE will attempt to detect and map this dust, both by searching for scattered sunlight with its ultraviolet spectrometer and via the direct detection of dust particles in flight with an instrument on the top of the orbiting spacecraft…”