With NASA eyeing return to the Moon, Brown students helping the agency deal with pesky lunar dust

With a new grant from NASA, a team of Brown and RISD students is developing a system that may help protect spacesuits from sticky and highly abrasive lunar dust.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As NASA gears up for its Artemis program and the return of humans to Moon, the agency has asked a team of Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design students for help in dealing with one of the peskiest problems in lunar exploration: dust.

When Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon in 1969, he was quick to note that the lunar soil was extremely fine-grained, “almost like a powder.” Those tiny grains would become a colossal pain in the neck for lunar explorers. The dust wound up sticking to just about everything it touched, clogging machinery, scratching lenses and shredding spacesuits. In a post-flight debriefing, Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan commented that “dust is probably one of the greatest inhibitors to a nominal operation on the Moon.”

More than 50 years after the first crewed Moon landing, NASA is still working on the problem. Recently, the agency put out a call to college students around the country looking for innovative engineering solutions. A team of Brown and RISD students answered with a novel idea: patches made of dust-repelling electrostatic fibers designed to protect the most vulnerable spots on spacesuits. Their proposal was one of seven nationwide selected for further development, and the team will receive up to $88,000 in research funding to build and test a system prototype.

Anthony Capobianco, a Brown senior, said working on spacesuits was a natural fit for the group, which draws its members from RISD Rover, a team that participates in NASA’s annual Human Exploration Rover Challenge, and Brown Space Engineering, a student organization whose custom-built satellite recently completed a two-and-a-half-year mission.  

“I think we ultimately agreed because of our combined strength as engineers from Brown and designers from RISD that [working on] spacesuits would make the most sense,” Capobianco said. “They have extensive textile backgrounds and we could help with things like the electrostatic component.”

The students’ proposed solution, dubbed TEST-RAD, is a three-layer system that covers a spacesuit’s seals and joints, which are particularly vulnerable to dust damage. An insulating bottom layer connects the system to the suit. On top of that, a layer of stainless steel mesh generates an electric field, which propagates up through an outer layer of tightly tufted fibers made of PEDOT, a conductive polymer material. The electric field repels the lunar dust particles, which themselves carry a tiny electric charge. Particles that get through the electric field are likely to be trapped dense fiber tufts. Anything that gets through the tufts will be blocked by steel mesh.

Capobianco says the inspiration for the tufted fibers comes from chinchillas, whose famously dense fur makes it hard for anything to penetrate. That combined with electrostatic approach was what caught NASA’s eye, he noted.

“One highlight from the NASA feedback was that we have these three layers and each of them is doing something different,” he said. “That was one of the reasons they thought our design was so novel.”

With the grant in place, the team now sets to work building a prototype and testing it using simulated lunar soil. They aim to have final test results ready to report to NASA by the end of September.

Capobianco said the team is excited that the hands-on work is getting underway in accordance with the University’s COVID-19 protocols.

“We [developed the proposal] over Zoom and there are some people on our team I’ve never even met in person,” Capobianco said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air because [we hadn’t] been able to do a lot of the project-based stuff, so we’re really excited.”