Learning how the dust settles on Mars

Dr. Joel S. Levine of Williamsburg, who served for 41 years as NASA’s senior research scientist and as a Mars Scout Program scientist, and currently serves as research professor in the Department of Applied Science at the College of William and Mary, has a new mission: To ascertain how dust in the Mars atmosphere could affect human exploration there.

Dr. Levine, together with Dr. Daniel Winterhalter, Chief Scientist for NASA Engineering and Safety Center and Dr. Russel L. Kerschmann, a medical doctor, former Chief of Space Biosciences Division at the NASA Ames Research Center, organized a workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston to address questions about how the frequent localized and regional dust storms may affect surface operations on Mars.

About 100 Mars scientists, mission planners and project engineers and medical doctors, researchers, graduate and undergraduate students attended the workshop. The result is a book, the product of the workshop.

The introduction to “Dust in the Atmosphere of Mars and Its Impact on Human Exploration,” states, “As NASA’s plans for human exploration of Mars are developing and maturing, a major new concern has arisen – the negative impacts of Mars surface and atmospheric dust on human health and on the human surface mechanical systems (e.g. human space suits and surface habitats, pressurized mobility systems, etc.) and on human surface operation on Mars.”

Dr. Levine was among the first who brought this issue to NASA’s attention.

The book, published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK, and edited by Drs. Levine, Winterhalter and Kerschmann, summarizes the current understanding and knowledge about Mars atmospheric dust. It includes the particle size distribution and density of atmospheric dust under various conditions. It addresses the chemical composition of that dust, including the identification of possible toxic compounds in it. The contributors to the book identified a host of other problems that must be addressed before human explorers could disembark on the planet.

It is already known that windblown dust ranging in size from sub-micron size to tens of microns originating from surface regolith of Mars is a constant feature of the planet’s atmosphere of the planet.

The Apollo astronauts had negative experiences with lunar dust. It permeated all mechanical systems, including the astronaut’s space suits and the Apollo landing capsule.

According to Dr. Levine, the aim of the book is to identify gaps in the knowledge about Mars’ atmospheric dust, such as on human respiration over the extended periods of time that the astronauts will spend on the surface of Mars.

“To better understand,” he said, “the potential role of the omnipresent atmospheric dust in the possible inadvertent transport of Mars microorganisms, if they exist to Earth by the astronauts and their onboard equipment.”

It is apparent, that living on the Martian surface will require the development of capable habitation systems. “Habitats must keep crew members healthy and happy for the duration of surface missions. Dealing with dusty environment on Mars and keeping the dust below permissible limits within the surface habitats will drive habitat design decisions,” Dr. Levine said.

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.

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