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January 30, 2006: Moondust. "I wish I can send you some," states Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan. Just a thimbleful scooped fresh turn off the lunar surface. "It"s amazing stuff."

Feel it—it"s soft prefer snow, however strangely abrasive.

Taste it—"not fifty percent bad," according to Apollo 16 astronaut man Young.

Sniff it—"it smells favor spent gunpowder," claims Cernan.

How perform you sniff moondust?


Every Apollo astronaut did it. They couldn"t touch their noses to the lunar surface. But, after ~ every moonwalk (or "EVA"), they would tramp the stuff ago inside the lander. Moondust was very clingy, sticking to boots, gloves and other exposed surfaces. No issue how difficult they tried come brush your suits prior to re-entering the cabin, part dust (and periodically a most dust) do its way inside.


Once their helmets and gloves to be off, the astronauts could feel, smell and even taste the moon.

Right: at the end of a long day on the moon, Apollo 17 astronaut Gene cernan rests within the lunar module Challenger. Keep in mind the smudges of dust top top his longjohns and also forehead. Photograph credit: Jack Schmitt.

The experience offered Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt history"s an initial recorded situation of extraterrestrial hay fever. "It"s which pretty fast," that radioed Houston with a congested voice. Years later he recalls, "When ns took my helmet turn off after the very first EVA, I had actually a significant reaction to the dust. Mine turbinates (cartilage bowl in the wall surfaces of the gaianation.netl chambers) ended up being swollen."

Hours later, the emotion faded. "It was there again after the 2nd and 3rd EVAs, yet at much reduced levels. I think ns was developing some immune to it."

Other astronauts didn"t get the hay fever. Or, at least, "they didn"t recognize it," laughs Schmitt. "Pilots think if castle confess your symptoms, they"ll be grounded." unequal the various other astronauts, Schmitt didn"t have a test pilot background. He to be a geologist and readily admitted come sniffles.

Schmitt claims he has actually sensitive turbinates: "The petrochemicals in Houston provided to drive me crazy, and also I need to watch out for cigarette smoke." That"s why, he believes, various other astronauts reacted much less than the did.

But they did react: "It is really a strong smell," radioed Apollo 16 pilot Charlie Duke. "It has that taste -- come me, gunpowder -- and also the smell of gunpowder, too." ~ above the following mission, Apollo 17, Gene Cernan remarked, "smells prefer someone simply fired a carbine in here."

Schmitt says, "All that the Apollo astronauts were offered to handling guns." So when they said "moondust smells like burnt gunpowder," lock knew what lock were talking about.


Right: Aren"t spacesuits an alleged to be white? This one, worn by Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt, is grayed by moondust.


To it is in clear, moondust and gunpowder are not the very same thing. Modern smokeless dynamite is a mixture that nitrocellulose (C6H8(NO2)2O5) and nitroglycerin (C3H5N3O9). These room flammable organic molecules "not discovered in lunar soil," states Gary Lofgren that the Lunar Sample activities at gaianation.net"s Johnson space Center. Organize a enhance to moondust--nothing happens, in ~ least, nothing explosive.

What is moondust do of? Almost fifty percent is silicon dioxide glass created by meteoroids hitting the moon. These impacts, which have actually been going on for billions of years, fuse topsoil right into glass and also shatter the same into tiny pieces. Moondust is also rich in iron, calcium and also magnesium bound up in mineral such as olivine and pyroxene. It"s nothing favor gunpowder.

So why the smell? no one knows.

ISS astronaut Don Pettit, who has actually never to be to the moon however has an attention in room smells, uses one possibility:

"Picture you yourself in a desert ~ above Earth," he says. "What perform you smell? Nothing, until it rains. The wait is all of sudden filled through sweet, peaty odors." Water evaporating from the floor carries molecule to your sleep that have been trapped in dry soil for months.

Maybe something similar happens ~ above the moon.

"The moon is prefer a 4-billion-year-old desert," that says. "It"s very dry. As soon as moondust comes in contact with moist air in a lunar module, you acquire the "desert rain" effect--and some lovely odors." (For the record, he counts gunpowder as a lover odor.)


Above: The moon--a 4 exchange rate year old desert.


Gary Lofgren has actually a associated idea: "The gases "evaporating" from the moondust might come native the solar wind." unequal Earth, that explains, the moon is exposed come the warm wind that hydrogen, helium and other ion blowing far from the sun. These ion hit the moon"s surface and get captured in the dust.

It"s a breakable situation. "The ions are easily dislodged through footsteps or dustbrushes, and also they would certainly be evaporated by call with warm air inside the lunar module. Solar wind ions mingling v the cabin"s setting would create who-knows-what odors."

Want to smell the solar wind? walk to the moon.

Schmitt supplies yet an additional idea: The smell, and his reaction come it, could be a authorize that moondust is chemically active.

"Consider exactly how moondust is formed," that says. "Meteoroids fight the moon, reducing rocks come jagged dust. It"s a procedure of hammering and smashing." damaged molecules in the dust have actually "dangling bonds"--unsatisfied electric connections that need atomic partners.


Right: Moondust is created by pounding; the "hammers" room meteoroids. Image credit: Prof. Larry Taylor, university of Tennessee.


Inhale some moondust and also what happens? The dangling bonds seek partners in the membranes of your nose. You obtain congested. Friend report strange odors. Later, once the every the bonds space partnered-up, this sensations fade.

Another possibility is the moondust "burns" in the lunar lander"s oxygen atmosphere. "Oxygen is an extremely reactive," note Lofgren, "and would readily incorporate with the dangling chemical bonds the the moondust." The process, dubbed oxidation, is akin to burning. Back it happens too progressively for smoke or flames, the oxidation that moondust might produce one aroma like charred gunpowder. (Note: Burnt and also unburnt gunpowder execute not smell the same. Apollo astronauts to be specific. Moondust smells choose burnt gunpowder.)

Curiously, ago on Earth, moondust has no smell. There are hundreds of pounds the moondust in ~ the Lunar Sample lab in Houston. There, Lofgren has held dusty moon rocks through his very own hands. He"s sniffed the rocks, sniffed the air, sniffed his hands. "It does no smell choose gunpowder," the says.

Were the Apollo crews imagining things? No. Lofgren and others have a better explanation:

Moondust on earth has to be "pacified." all of the samples brought back by Apollo astronauts have been in contact v moist, oxygen-rich air. Any kind of smelly chemistry reactions (or evaporations) ended long ago.


This wasn"t an alleged to happen. Astronauts took special "thermos" containers come the moon to hold the samples in vacuum. However the jagged edge of the dust unexpectedly cut the seals the the containers, permitting oxygen and also water vapor come sneak in during the 3-day trip back to Earth. No one can say exactly how much the dust was changed by that exposure.


Right: Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean screens a "thermos" for moondust--a.k.a. A Special environmental Sample Container.

Schmitt to trust "we have to study the dust in situ--on the moon." just there deserve to we fully discover that properties: Why does the smell? just how does the react through landers, rovers and habitats? What surprises await?

gaianation.net plans come send people ago to the moon in 2018, and also they"ll continue to be much longer than Apollo astronauts did. The next generation will have an ext time and much better tools to tackle the mystery.

We"ve just just begun to odor the moondust.

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Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | manufacturing Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: gaianation.net

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The author would choose to thank

Eric Jones who penned the Apollo Lunar surface ar Journal, a must-read for historians of the Apollo program. Countless of the radio transmissions and recollections report in this story come native the Journal.gaianation.net writer Trudy Bell for her occupational on an previously version of this story.

Note: as the story explains, moondust is nothing like contemporary smokeless gunpowder. It"s nothing favor old-fashioned "black powder" either: black powder, an ancient form of gunpowder, is mostly potassium nitrate (75%), a.k.a. "saltpeter," mixed with charcoal (15%) and sulfur (10%). Moondust contains virtually none of this ingredients. Because that example, "the maximum quantity of sulfur in moondust we"ve studied is just 0.2%," claims Gary Lofgren that the Lunar Sample activities at gaianation.net"s Johnson room Center. "And the explosive ingredient of black powder, saltpeter, is totally absent."