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NASA scientists designing Martian dust filter

Martian dust: Martian geology as viewed by Curiosity rover

Martian dust is one of the problems that astronauts will have to deal with on Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

One of the challenges that astronauts will face on Mars is the presence of the fine Martian dust. Not only can the dust get into equipment and cause damage, but also it is extremely toxic with perchlorates.

However, scientists at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) are working on this problem. Dr. Carlos Calle, lead scientist at the Electrostatics and Surface Physics Laboratory, and physicist Jay Phillips are developing an electrostatic precipitator which will filter out the dust and enable the Martian air to be used for in-situ resource utilization (ISRU).

Unlike the Apollo Moon landing missions, which took with them everything that would be needed for the duration of the missions, astronauts on Mars will, to a certain extent, have to live off the land. The Red Planet, despite its stark, airless, solar/cosmic-ray radiation exposed surface, which also produces secondary radiation particles, is rich in materials useful to future Mars explorations.

“Commodities such as oxygen water and methane can be obtained from the carbon dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere,” Calle said. “Astronauts will need these essentials as they practice in-situ resource utilization.”

Electrostatic precipitators already exist and are used in other industries, chiefly filtering particles out of the plumes from power plants. As the gas passes through the precipitator, high-voltage electrodes impart an electrostatic charge on the dust particles in the gas. Once the particles are charged, they migrate to an electrode with an opposite charge.

LEFT IMAGE: Dr. Carlos Calle, lead scientist in the Kennedy Space Center’s Electrostatics and Surface Physics Laboratory (left) and Jay Phillips, a research physicist, are modifying an electrostatic precipitator. On Mars, the device would allow astronauts to extract useful elements such as oxygen, water, and methane. RIGHT IMAGE: In their Swamp Works laboratory at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Dr. Carlos Calle and Jay Phillips are testing an electrostatic precipitator using dust that closely approximates the make-up of that on Mars. They upgraded their electrostatic precipitator to fully simulate Martian atmosphere by designing and constructing a dust aerosolization pre-chamber. Photos & Caption Credits: Kim Shiflett / NASA

Calle and Phillips would like to adapt this existing technology for use on Mars, but they note that it will need to be greatly adapted for a very different environment.

“Electrostatic precipitators will remove dust from the atmospheric gas intakes on the Martian ISRU processing plants,” Philips said. “Dust can damage equipment and must be separated from the atmosphere prior to producing the consumables astronauts will require for life support and fuel on Mars.”

In order to maximize the efficiency of the crewed Mars spacecraft, much of the equipment for the Mars mission will be sent ahead to the landing site before the crew arrives.

“The plan is to send an electrostatic precipitator and other equipment to a landing site to prepare for the arrival of the crew,” Phillips said.

Calle and Phillips have designed a dust aerosolization pre-chamber, which converts dust particles into much finer particles, closer to the conditions on Mars. Particles so small and light are suspended in the air much like an aerosol.

“The challenge on Mars is the much lower atmospheric pressure there compared to the atmospheric pressure on Earth,” Calle said.

The atmosphere on Mars is only 0.6 percent the atmospheric pressure at sea level on Earth, and the composition of the atmosphere is primarily carbon dioxide.

By duplicating conditions on Mars, Calle and Phillips hope to design an electrostatic precipitator that will be able to effectively remove dust from the environment on Mars.


This article was updated at 13:30 EDT, July 7, 2017, to clarify radiation on Mars’ surface.



Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.

Reader Comments

Rodger Raubach

“Radioactive surface?” No. Radiation exposed surface; exposed to Solar flares and Galactic Cosmic Radiation, but is not itself “Radioactive,” and is not itself an emitter of radiation.

Bill Simpson

Imagine the cost to live somewhere with no free oxygen in an atmosphere with 1% of the pressure on Earth, no liquid flowing water, no fossil fuels, no topsoil with any nutrients, no wood to use for building, and where it drops to 100 below zero soon after the sun sets.
Sure, that’s going to happen. Exploration sure, colonies, never happen, unless you know someone with a few trillion dollars to spare.

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