The DEAR project

Dust Removal and Cleaning of Optical Surfaces and Seals in Lunar Environments

Protecting Lunar Space Hardware from the Moon’s Dust

The DEAR initiative (Dusty Environment Application Research) focuses on the effect of regolith dust on equipment to be used for lunar exploration. DEAR is a project under contract with the European Space Agency. It specifically addresses systematic development and testing of lunar dust removal strategies on optics, mechanisms and astronautic components (e.g. space suits). Of particular interest are risk assessment, avoidance and cleaning techniques such as the use of electric fields to remove lunar dust from surfaces. Standardized test setups and breadboards for studies will be realized during the course of 2021 and 2022.  Representative dust (e.g. regolith analogs of interesting landing sites) will be used in a dedicated test setup to evaluate risks and effects of lunar dust. The newly established test facilities shall serve as a focal point for lunar dust avoidance strategies and cleaning technologies and enable future European contributions to Moon surface exploration missions. Five European institutes combine forces in this project with Microelectronica S.A, namely  Fraunhofer IST, Austrian Space Forum (OeWF), Gusland Consulting, and  University College Dublin. The German space engineering company OHB System AG is consulting the consortium in this activity.

Interest in lunar exploration has regained thrust in recent years around the world. ESA, private industries and the academic sector strive to explore the Earth’s satellite with ambitious new technologies. The hostile environment of the Moon, however, is a serious challenge, in particular the lunar dust. To minimise its impact on optical surfaces and mechanisms, seals and in order to reduce operational risks during future lunar missions, the European Space Agency has contracted the DEAR project, which is led by Microelectronica S.A. Kicked off in November 2020, the project results shall be presented in a final presentation in 2022. Furthermore, a prototype demonstration of a dust removal technology for exploration missions on the lunar surface shall be conducted.

DEAR visual astronaut on the Moon

Risks posed by Lunar Dust

Being highly abrasive, electrically chargeable and potentially chemically reactive, lunar dust poses a high risk on the performance of hardware, such as cameras, thermal control and solar cells. The dust can cause malfunction on seals and influence the optical, mechanical and electrical as well as thermal properties of surfaces including space suits. For instance, during the sample processing on the lunar surface or in airlocks reliable seals are mandatory. Furthermore  lunar dust is likely to be toxic and therefore needs to be avoided inside of lunar habitats. This motivates the work on applicable and validated cleaning methods.

Therefore, ESA has contracted the DEAR consortium to explore the usage, e.g., of electric fields to prevent and remove dust from optical surfaces, mechanisms and seals. In parallel test infrastructure and test procedures will be developed. As a second step, breadboards will be designed, tested and rated for Moon applications.

The outcome of the project aims at a systematic evaluation of these risks, processes and technologies related to these regolith issues and the results on protection and cleaning of equipment shall be evaluated in lunar analog test campaigns on Earth and prepare for lunar surface missions in support of crew safety and long-term exploration goals.

Participating Institutions

Microelectronica S.A. manages the DEAR initiative as prime contractor including product and quality assurance, and system engineering. The tasks range from directing and controlling all technical, programmatic, and commercial activities on the project, to assure the needed requirements concerning the quality, design, and safety are met. The company-owned cleanroom and measurement equipment are provided.  Located in Bucarest, Ro, Microelectronica has invited students from the TU Bucarest to participate in the project as part of their academic curriculum.
The team is consulted by the quality department of Germany’s space system provider OHB System AG contributing with experience and expertise in relevant cleanliness aspects.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Surface Engineering and Thin Films (Fraunhofer IST),Germany will conduct simulations and manufacture the electrode structures on optical surfaces. The representative regolith simulant from the TU Braunschweig will be used for experimental investigations.

The Fraunhofer Research Institution for Microsystems and Solid State Technology (Fraunhofer EMFT), Germany will supply long (several meters), thin and flexible substrates with micro-patterned electrode designs according to the simulation results of Fraunhofer IST.

The Austrian research partner, the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) will investigate acoustic and vibration methods for cleaning lunar dust. The behaviour of dust on a surface during vibration and acoustic effects shall be examined in respect of redistribution or removing behaviour. In addition, textile samples of space suits such as the OeWF-built spacesuit simulators Aouda.X and Aouda.S will be used for tests.

Gusland Consulting, Norway will critically analyse and review the available technologies, especially those related to sensors, and is furthermore heading the activity for the Electrical Ground Support Equipment (EGSE). The company has access to environmental test facilities such as thermal and vacuum chambers, and vibration shakers.

The University College Dublin, Ireland provides a robotic arm and student work force to test and analyse the impact of dust in its functionality and on the sealing. In addition, parts of a space suit simulator (provided by the Austrian Space Forum) will be used in simulated operation.

The German companies Clear & Clean as well as acp-systems provide their heritage and test results for dust removal by tissue wiping and blast cleaning with supercritical CO2 jets. Parallel to potential Moon city applications this know-how is seen useful for save operation of regolith samples in mission MAIT and verification processes far before they are sent to the Moon.

The DEAR project serves as a focal point of activities related to the impact of lunar dust on potential future lunar surface missions and therefore is in contact with similar activities in Europe and its strategic partners.

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This article is available in: German