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Students win top NASA honor for moon dust project

A doll gets cleaned with liquid nitrogen spray.

A Washington State University student team successfully built and demonstrated a prototype to clean lunar dust from spacesuits and won the prestigious Artemis Award at NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge.

The award recognizes WSU’s project for its potential to contribute to and be integrated into NASA’s Artemis mission, which aims to land the first woman and person of color on the moon in 2024.

The team was one of seven from around the U.S. who competed in the challenge. They received a $130,000 grant earlier this year to complete a prototype and presented their project to NASA judges this week. The students also received an award for the best technical paper at the event. 

“This team of sophomores and juniors has showed, yet again, that WSU’s best can compete with the best from anywhere — both on and off of this planet,” said Jacob Leachman, associate professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and one of the team’s advisors. “Their results show decisively that their concept could solve this challenge. I’m over the moon for the hard work this team completed and how much they learned during a difficult time.”

From the earliest days of the US space program, lunar dust has created concerns for the space agency. Because it’s electrostatically charged, the dust gets everywhere. It is abrasive and can damage engines and electronics and can cause health problems when people inhale it. Scientists have not found a good way to easily clean off items that get dusty in space.

Using a doll in a makeshift spacesuit, the student team demonstrated their technology that uses the Leidenfrost Effect to clean the space suits. The effect can be seen when one pours water on a hot frying pan, where it beads up and moves across the pan. For the project, the students used liquid nitrogen, using it to carry dust particles away on boiling vapor. They used ash from the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption as a substitute for lunar dust. 

The project was led by Ian Wells, a junior in mechanical engineering, and included Camden Butikofer, Nathaniel Swets, and Lauren Reising, mechanical engineering undergraduates; John Bussey, an undergraduate in materials science and chemical engineering; and graduate students Stasia Kulsa and Gregory Wallace. In addition to Leachman, the team was advised by Professors John McCloy and Konstantin Matveev in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

See a video about the project:

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