We Need To Tackle Mars Dust Before Launching Manned Mission
Manned missions to Mars could be scuppered by the tiniest of annoyances — dust. A team of space safety experts repeatedly flagged up the issue at the Humans 2 Mars Summit (H2M) in Washington DC, according to a report by the New Scientist.
The conference is a highly reputable one, attended by the likes of Nasa chief Charles Bolden. Its focus is on debating the main obstacles we need to overcome in order to send humans to Mars by 2030. Now, with more than 20,000 people applying (and paying) for the chance to go to the Red Planet for Mars One’s reality TV show, the possibility of toxic dust is probably going to be one giant addition to any disclaimer the hopeful astronauts have to sign.
Dust, as we all know, gets everywhere. If you’ve ever been in a Khamsin — the hot, dry, dusty seasonal winds that blow in the Middle East — you’ll know it’s fairly unpleasant. It gets in your eyes, your clothes and your throat grows hoarse from swallowing it. Earthly dust we can deal with, but it turns out dust on the Red Planet has the potential to do far more than irritate.
Nasa chief medical officer Richard Williams, Paragon Space Development cofounder Grant Anderson, Curiosity Rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) principle investigator Paul Mahaffy and Boeing engineer and technical lead for the Environmental Control and Life Support System on the ISS Greg Gentry painted a picture of an inhospitable Mars where the dust is potentially inescapable. They pointed to serveral examples from Mars itself, and from Moon missions, that support this assumption.
Most recently Curiosity scooped up a robotic handful of Mars dust from Rocksnest that Mahaffy believes contains perchlorates. It’s something that was previously picked up by Nasa’a Phoenix lander on Mars in 2008 near the planet’s north pole. Perchlorates are salts that in large quantities can interrupt iodine uptake in the thyroid gland, and thus potentially interfere with the normal release of hormones.
Curiosity’s Chemcam also took samples from veins in the YellowKnife region and found high levels of calcium sulfate that it is predicted exist in the form of bassanite or gypsum. We have gypsum here on Earth, where it’s commonly used in plaster or fertilisers, but we don’t know how much there is on Mars’ surface.
“Gypsum is not really toxic per se, but if you breathe it in you do start to see a build-up in the lungs that’s equivalent to the coal-dust lung experienced by miners,” said Anderson. “That leads to breakdowns in lung capacity.”
Of course astronauts heading to Mars on a one-way trip will be in space suits any time they’re wandering round the planet’s surface, but our trips to the Moon show how impossible it is to keep dust off those suits. Reports from Apollo missions in the late 60s and early 70s revealed what a pain the dust was for explorers. It was so sharp it would wear through their outer gloves and would stick to everything, and it reportedly even caused “lunar hayfever”.
Part of it was down to the dust’s spiky surface, but a large part was also down to how static it was. UV rays and solar winds manipulate electron levels by day and night, powering up dust’s electrostatic charge. Wetting surfaces to wipe it off only made the dust stick more firmly. It’s like the silicate minerals all over Mars’ surface — if they mix with water in human lungs, they will become more damaging, combining to create dangerous chemicals.
Anderson predicts Mars dust will also be charged up, and that it will be nearly impossible to stop them entering a safe site through the airlocks where astronauts acclimatise back to normal conditions.
“The Apollo programme spent $17 million (£11 million) trying to solve their lunar dust problems, and I’m not sure they made much progress, because they had to do the tests on Earth,” said Anderson. “For Mars, the precursor robotic missions should all have some way to test how dust is going to kill you.”
According to a blog in the Washington Post Gentry commented that astronauts aboard the ISS spend most of their time making sure instruments, filters and surfaces are clean — “we are happy when we get 30 hours of science out of the crew a week,” he said.
So for now, it looks like Dyson needs to get to work on a spaceworthy air purifier.