NASA's $19M Mission: Simulating Messy Moon Dust

By Drew Nelles,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 18, 2009 11:52 AM CDT
Moon dust nearly ruined this iconic photograph, when the ground proved so hard that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could barely plant a flagpole.   (AP Photo/Neil Armstrong, NASA, file)
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(Newser) – With NASA hoping to set up a lunar outpost by 2020, an unlikely nuisance has become a hot commodity: moon dust. With only 227 pounds of the equipment-clogging stuff available for tests, NASA is pouring $19 million into faking it, the Wall Street Journal reports. "So many people need moon dirt, and there's just not enough to go around,” a project manager says.

Scientists need moon dust for everything from basic medical tests to more outlandish experiments, but it’s more glass-like than its earthly counterpart, thanks to its unique heat-fusion formation. So every year, NASA collects 12 tons of moon-mimicking rock from a Montana mine, subjects it to 30,000-degree heat in a one-of-a-kind plasma furnace, and rips it apart with sonic booms. Instant moon dust—for $35,000 a ton. "It's as good as it gets," a project chief says.