NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) is in its final preparatory stages, and will fly to the Moon in August of next year. One of the more intriguing questions it will address is the mystery of the levitating lunar dust that may float above the surface of the moon.
(NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE))
In the 1960s, several NASA Surveyor moon landers relayed images showing a twilight glow low over the lunar horizon persisting after the sun had set. Also, a number of Apollo astronauts orbiting the moon saw twilight rays before lunar sunrise or lunar sunset.
In addition, some have floated the theory that the glowing transient lunar phenomenon seen from Earth might stem from sunlight reflecting off of suspended lunar dust.
LADEE will investigate this moon magic trick of levitating lunar dust. The spacecraft has the tools it needs to address mysteries and questions that have been around since Apollo, said Rick Elphic, LADEE project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
Elphic told SPACE.com that among its duties, the LADEE mission can further investigate tantalizing hints about the dust and the moon’s exotic atmosphere.
"If we fly LADEE through the regions where the Apollo command module observations were made, we will know right away if there are small grains there or not," Elphic said. LADEE’s Lunar Dust Experiment (LDEX) is a very sensitive dust-detecting instrument, he said, and scientists may be able to place new upper limits on the dust in the first week of the spacecraft’s orbiting operations.
Science fiction writers in the 1950's and 1960's were vitally interested in the topic of lunar dust, because no one knew just how deep it might get on the lunar surface. One of the goals of the Surveyor mission was to find out if the surface of the Moon had been covered with a deep layer of dust due to micrometeorites raining down on the lunar surface for billions of years.
SF author Hal Clement went further, and predicted in a 1956 short story that electrostatically charged lunar dust particles might actually suspend themselves above the surface:
"…The [Moon's] surface material is one of the lousiest imaginable electrical conductors, so the dust normally on the surface picks up and keeps a charge. And what, dear student, happens to particles carrying like electrical charges?"
"They are repelled from each other."
(From Dust Rag, Astounding Science Fiction, 1956)
Other writers were fascinated by the possibility of lunar dust bowls, like Arthur C. Clarke, who described the hazards of off-road driving on the Moon. In particular, the problem of getting stuck in an uncharted lunar "dust bowl":
"...the tractor's nose disappeared in a great cloud of dust. The whole vehicle tilted forward... they seemed to be going under in swirling clouds of spray.
...They jolted their way forward in agonizingly slow surges, then Jamieson cut the engine completely.
"Why did you do that?" Wheeler asked anxiously. "We seemed to be getting some where."
"Yes, but we're also getting too hot. This dust is an almost perfect heat insulator...
In his 1961 novel A Fall of Moondust, Clarke also described the thrill of operating dust-skis, which were similar to the jet skis used on Earth's surface water deposits (i.e., lakes).
The grandfather of these sfnal observations, as far as I know, is the moon skis used in Robert Heinlein's 1939 story Requiem.
Over the western horizon hung the Earth at last quarter, a green-blue giant moon...
MacIntyre bent down without a word and picked up the wide skis necessary to negotiate the powdery ash. Charlie followed his example.
See also these related stories:
Skiing That Soft Lunar Powder
"Oh, boy, it's beautiful out here! Reminds me of Sun Valley," Apollo 15's Jim Irwin declared from the Hadley Rille.
Moon Dust Substrate For Solar Panels
In his 1951 novel The Moon is Hell, John W. Campbell wrote about marooned members of the second lunar expedition surviving by manufacturing solar cells using lunar materials.