This is no ordinary playground sandbox. This is a high-tech NASA-developed learning lab, and it may be key to the success of future visits to the Moon.
NASA’s Swamp Works team has the job of mastering regolith—or Moon dust. Regolith is the fine, powdery dust that covers solid rock on the Moon’s surface. Earth has regolith too—but it is mostly mixed with organic matter from decaying plants and animals. We call it soil.
Moon dust holds potential as a mineral treasure trove. If establishing a colony with human inhabitants on the Moon one day is to become a reality, using regolith to power and build for that site’s needs is a strong probability. But regolith is also a real nuisance—it settles on everything like the sixth plague in Exodus 9—only causing breathing problems instead of boils. Former Moon-landing astronauts questioned returning to the Moon until a plan for the stuff was in place.
The persistent powder carries a static electricity charge. It clings to everything it touches. It contains diamond-fine abrasive crystals that cut through fabric and wear down machine parts. If it covers windows, solar panels, or helmet visors, it blocks light and vision. Astronauts have tried cleaning it up with broom-type brushes, wet cloths, and a vacuum. None were satisfactory for capturing it.
So Jason Shuler of Swamp Works is looking for solutions in the Earth-made replica “sandbox” that is nicknamed “Big Bin.” The testing box is very similar to conditions on the Moon. It contains 250 tons of dusty regolith that Swamp Works acquired from the byproduct pile of a desert rock quarry.
Shuler designs machines that can operate in the regolith without succumbing to the sticky dust’s effects. First, the machines must repel the dust they kick up while working. Each machine produces its own electrically charged shield that works against the static draw from the regolith. Next, Shuler approaches the purpose of the lunar equipment. His machines need to excavate and capture regolith safely, so that the mineral content can be derived without waste or problems.
Scientists believe it is possible to extract water from Moon dust and rocks. (See Water from Moon Rocks.) They also believe rocket fuel could be made from regolith—and used to power spacecraft that might launch from the Moon to Mars one day.
Many robotic missions to the Moon are expected before more human astronauts go to take steps toward that goal. But the Trump administration has tasked NASA with another manned Moon mission by 2024.