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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)

(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.

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Jul 21, 2009 10:53 AM CDT
I am so torn about the whole space program. There is no question that it helps develop technology. There is no question that, at some point, we will leave this planet (if not this Solar System). I am just not sure how we go about paying for it at a time when there are so many other pressing matters to deal with. Perhaps lifting some of the funding restrictions on NASA to allow private/corporate sponsorship of some or all aspects of flights would be a small step in the right direction. But right now, 19 million in lunar dust, or 19 million to a struggling school doesn't seem like a tricky decision to me.
Jul 19, 2009 1:54 AM CDT
Moon dust sounds exactly like the tons upon tons of volcanic ash we had to deal with after the Mt. St. Helens explosion. Very tiny, very sharp glasslike particles that rip everything apart, created by subjecting it to high heat and explosions. Folks would have gladly sold it for far less than $35K/ton.
Jul 18, 2009 11:27 AM CDT
If you want to travel back to the lunar surface, or indeed, any planet on this solar system, understanding how lunar regolith behaves in high, medium, low and no gravity environments is the first step. Or are you so afraid to pay higher taxes that you're willing to jeopardize the scientific achievements of your entire nation? Even at the peak of NASA's highest budgets in the 1960s, it accounted for little less than 2% of the budget, and was something in the neighbourhood of 10-20x smaller than the budget for defense spending.