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A View from Brittany Sauser

Lunar Self-Cleaning Material

A material with properties like a lotus plant could protect space equipment from lunar dust damage.

  • September 23, 2009

NASA researchers are developing a plant-inspired material that could prevent dust from sticking to equipment on the moon.

NASA’s Wanda Peters holds some material with the lotus
coating on it. Credit: NASA

Preventing dirt from covering equipment is essential on other planets. Apollo astronauts discovered this the hard way during their moonwalks–the highly abrasive lunar dust stuck easily to their spacesuits, jamming mechanical joints and restricting movement.

The new material is based on the lotus plant–known for repelling water–and is already used on windows, camera lenses, and eyeglasses. While there are lots of earth applications, the material will have to undergo heavy modifications to be able to endure the harsh environment of space.

NASA could use the material not just on spacesuits, but also on scientific equipment, solar panels, rovers, and other hardware. The team behind it, led by Wanda Peters at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, is in the process of testing different formulas. “No one formula will meet all our needs,” Peters said in the NASA press release. “For example, the coating that’s applied to spacesuits needs to stick to a flexible surface, while a coating developed to protect moving parts needs to be exceptionally durable to resist wear and tear.”

The commercial material is made from silica, zinc oxide, and other oxides. If you splash water on it, the water beads up and rolls off, just as it would roll off a lotus plant. (See previous TR articles on self-cleaning materials.) NASA researchers hope to add a biocide to the material to kill bacteria that produce foul odors wherever people are confined in a small space, like the space station or a future lunar outpost, for long periods. The agency is working with Northrop Grumman Electronics Systems, in Linthicum, MD, and nGimat Corporation, in Atlanta.

“We are modifying and testing the formula to ensure it can withstand all the challenges our hardware will encounter–extreme temperatures, ultraviolet radiation, solar wind, and electrostatic charging,” said Peters. “We are also making sure it remains durable and cleanable in the space environment.”

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