Star Wars would have you believe that the greatest challenges to space travel is asteroids, lack of resources like water or fuel, or even the threat of unfriendly, intelligent alien life. But in reality, scientists are finding that the biggest obstacle to today's space travel is dust. Yes, space dust.
While our human bodies have natural defenses (like nose hairs) against dust, some dust particles are small enough to bypass our own "deflector shield" if you will... and settle in lung tissues and airways, causing injury to our lungs. This is similar to the health hazards of particle pollution or even how coal dust can harm the lungs of coal miners.
In zero gravity, dust doesn't just settle to the ground, away from our noses and mouths as it would on Earth, but floats freely, easily getting into lungs and eyes.
As Neil Armstrong discovered, this dust is also a key feature of our very own moon and most likely other planets. As they found, beyond the zero gravity effect, planetary dust sticks to astronauts through static electricity has sharp edges, and follows them back into their spacecraft, making it more likely that the dust will enter their lungs and cause harm. Neil and his team even said they could smell and even taste this moon dust!
Beyond damaging the lung health of astronauts, space dust also wreaks havoc on equipment and ventilation systems, which are also necessary for survival in space.
In March of 2015, NASA conducted an ISS airlock experiment to test how space dust affects the lungs, hoping to identify how lungs perform in space.
Tests like these will be extremely important to the future of space travel and colonization. As you may know, the red hue of Mars is due to the fact that the planet is covered with red dust. According to NASA, this planetary dust is sometimes blown into dust storms, ranging from tiny dust storms that can look like tornadoes to larger ones that can cover the entire planet. Dust may challenge the ability to establish this permanent settlement, and special attention to lung health both on Mars and in space will be key to survival.
Learn more about how particle pollution threatens the health of humans here on our home base—Earth.