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

By Drew Nelles,  Newser Staff

Posted Jul 18, 2009 11:52 AM CDT

(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.

Moon dust nearly ruined this iconic photograph, when the ground proved so hard that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could barely plant a flagpole.
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)
This scoop was used by Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell to pick up moon dust on the Apollo 14 mission.
This scoop was used by Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell to pick up moon dust on the Apollo 14 mission.   (AP Photo/Donna McWilliam)
In this July 20, 1969, file photo, a footprint left by one of the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission shows in the soft, powder surface of the moon.
In this July 20, 1969, file photo, a footprint left by one of the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission shows in the soft, powder surface of the moon.   (AP Photo/NASA, file)
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