Astronauts who think joining a lunar colony would mean no more Earthly chores should reconsider. One important task for any future Moon residents could well be mowing the lunar lawn.

NASA plans to return people to the Moon as early as 2018 and lunar dust is likely to be a major problem for future missions. The Apollo missions ran from 1961 to 1972, and from the moment Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969, lunar astronauts have complained of dust sticking to their space suits and getting into seals. Several even reported respiratory problems and itchy eyes as a result of exposure to dust carried into lunar landers. The dust also caused problems for mechanical and electronic equipment.

Fortunately for future colonists, Lawrence Taylor, a planetary geologist at the University of Tennessee, US, has devised a way to combat this Moon menace – a “lunar lawnmower”. In place of whirling blades, however, the machine would use microwaves to force dust particles to clump together.

Taylor tested genuine lunar dust in a 250-watt microwave oven on Earth and discovered that, after just 30 seconds, the grains fused together. This is because there are nanometre-sized particles of iron present on nearly every grain of lunar soil and microwaves cause the iron particles to couple together. The powdery dust is quickly fused together into a glassy substance, he told a Lunar Exploration Advisory Group conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, US, in October.

By Kelly Young

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