Dust in space 10 cool things to know space earthsky

Dust grains come in a range of sizes, which affects their properties. Particles can be extremely tiny, from only a few tens of nanometers (mere billionths of a meter) wide, to nearly a millimeter wide. As you might expect, smaller dust grains are more easily lifted and pushed around, be it by winds or magnetic, electrical and gravitational forces. Even the gentle pressure of sunlight is enough to move smaller dust particles in space. Bigger particles tend to be heavier, and they settle out more easily under the influence of gravity.

For example, on Earth, powerful winds can whip up large amounts of dust into the atmosphere. While the smaller grains can be transported over great distances, the heavier particles generally sink back to the ground near their source.

On Saturn’s moon Enceladus, jets of icy dust particles spray hundreds of miles up from the surface; the bigger particles are lofted only a few tens of miles (or kilometers) and fall back to the ground, while the finest particles escape the moon’s gravity and go into orbit around Saturn to create the planet’s E ring.

Local dust storms occur frequently on Mars, and occasionally grow or merge to form regional systems, particularly during the southern spring and summer, when Mars is closest to the sun. On rare occasions, regional storms produce a dust haze that encircles the planet and obscures surface features beneath. A few of these events may become truly global storms, such as one in 1971 that greeted the first spacecraft to orbit Mars, NASA’s Mariner 9. In mid-2018, a global dust storm enshrouded Mars, hiding much of the red planet’s surface from view and threatening the continued operation of NASA’s uber-long-lived Opportunity rover. We’ve also seen global dust storms in 1977, 1982, 1994, 2001 and 2007.

Earth’s largest, hottest desert is connected to its largest tropical rain forest by dust. The Sahara Desert is a near-uninterrupted brown band of sand and scrub across the northern third of Africa. The Amazon rain forest is a dense green mass of humid jungle that covers northeast South America. But after strong winds sweep across the Sahara, a dusty cloud rises in the air, stretches between the continents, and ties together the desert and the jungle.

This trans-continental journey of dust is important because of what is in the dust – specifically, the dust picked up from the Bodélé Depression in Chad – an ancient lake bed where minerals composed of dead microorganisms are loaded with phosphorus. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plant proteins and growth, which the nutrient-poor Amazon rain forest depends on in order to flourish.

The rings of the giant planets contain a variety of different dusty materials. Jupiter’s rings are made of fine rock dust. Saturn’s rings are mostly pure water ice, with a sprinkling of other materials. (Side note about Saturn’s rings: While most of the particles are boulder-sized, there’s also lots of fine dust, and some of the fainter rings are mostly dust with few or no large particles.) Dust in the rings of Uranus and Neptune is made of dark, sooty material, probably rich in carbon.

Over time, dust gets removed from ring systems due to a variety of processes. For example, some of the dust falls into the planet’s atmosphere, while some gets swept up by the planets’ magnetic fields, and other dust settles onto the surfaces of the moons and other ring particles. Larger particles eventually form new moons or get ground down and mixed with incoming material. This means rings can change a lot over time, so understanding how the tiniest ring particles are being moved about has a bearing on the history, origins and future of the rings.

So, dust is kind of a thing on the moon. When the Apollo astronauts visited the Moon, they found that lunar dust quickly coated their spacesuits and was difficult to remove. It was quite abrasive, causing wear on their spacesuit fabrics, seals and faceplates. It also clogged mechanisms like the joints in spacesuit limbs, and interfered with fasteners like zippers and Velcro. The astronauts also noted that it had a distinctive, pungent odor, not unlike gunpowder, and it was an eye and lung irritant.

Many of these properties apparently can be explained by the fact that lunar dust particles are quite rough and jagged. While dust particles on Earth get tumbled and ground by the wind into smoother shapes, this sort of weathering doesn’t happen so much on the moon. The roughness of moon dust grains makes it very easy for them to cling to surfaces and scratch them up. It also means they’re not the sort of thing you would want to inhale, as their jagged edges could damage delicate tissues in the lung.