All of the off-world buzz these days may be around Mars and Titan, but NASA contractors are looking to send human life a little closer to home. Project Constellation, NASA'a agenda for the future of spaceflight, outlines plans for the construction of a lunar outpost starting in 2019. But with no water and no atmosphere, even limited colonization of the moon promises to be a challenging and expensive endeavor. So engineers are turning to a substance that may make moon-based life easier: lunar dirt.Honeybee Robotics, which has been contracted to develop tools for the eventual lunar outpost, is creating an excavation mechanism with an eye toward employing lunar dirt for as many uses as possible:
Once the device has sucked up lunar dirt, or regolith, this material could be conveniently diverted and used as a protective covering over homes (regolith is good for shielding from radiation). The dirt could also be processed to extract the oxygen bound up in its minerals… [I]nstead of carting up heavy water, astronauts could travel with hydrogen, and then add oxygen later. Since oxygen is the heavier ingredient in water, and it can be extracted from the surface, this approach saves precious cargo weight. And once a store of water has been created for the lunar colony, most of it can be recycled without having to create more from scratch.
But the panacea of moon dust is not without its drawbacks:
Moon dwellers will also have to contend with the ubiquitous dust on the surface of the moon, which gets into everything and can wear down joints and connectors and prevent sealing off doors. It also poses a health risk to people, as it can cause breathing problems and is difficult to filter out of habitats.