How NASA’s VIPER rover will tackle the problem of moon dust

NASA is preparing to send astronauts back to the moon by 2024 as part of the Artemis program. But there’s one challenge of lunar exploration we haven’t solved yet: How to deal with moon dust.

The surface of the moon is covered in loose soil, also known as regolith, which kicks up clouds of dust whenever anything is moved over it. This dust gets everywhere and sticks to absolutely everything, because of the ultraviolet radiation from the sun which positively charges dust particles and makes them sticky. The particles also remain sharp due to the lack of wind erosion, making them abrasive.

This dust can gum up electronics and stop them from working, and may be dangerous to the health of astronauts. NASA has been searching for solutions to this issue for years, and now it has a strategy for dealing with the dust when it comes to its newest lunar rover, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, which will hunt for water on the moon from 2023 ahead of the arrival of Artemis astronauts.

Robotics engineer Jason Schuler performs a preliminary test to prepare for dust testing of various seals for the wheel motors on NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER
Researchers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center are testing the various types of seals for electric motors that drive the Volatiels Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, wheels at Swamp Works. NASA

One of the challenges for VIPER is that the engineers aren’t sure what type of dust it will encounter — whether it will be light and fluffy or compacted and heavy. Therefore, the rover is designed to be highly maneuverable, able to drive sideways and diagonally, and this agility means it can cope with different surfaces.

To test out dust protection, the engineers took one of the rover’s wheels and placed it in a “dust chamber,” an open-topped acrylic box which is full of simulated dust and fans to blow it about. The wheel was protected by a flexible covering which acts as heat insulation and dust protection, then the fans were turned on and moved to simulate the worst possible conditions for dust.

Once the test was over, the engineers found that there was dust all over the outer covering, but none had managed to penetrate to the inside of the rover wheel. This suggests that the covering may be effective at protecting the delicate electronics inside the rover from the abrasive dust. As further protection against dust, the team is also testing out various different types of seals for the wheels’ electrical motors.

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