Nasa spots leaping lunar dust

Electrically charged lunar dust near shadowed craters can get lofted above the surface and jump over the shadowed region, bouncing back and forth between sunlit areas on opposite sides, according to new calculations by Nasa scientists.

“The motion of an individual dust particle is like a pendulum or a swing. We predict dust can swarm like bees around a hive over partially shaded regions on the Moon and other airless objects in the solar system, such as asteroids. We found that this is a new class of dust motion,” said lead researcher Michael Collier at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt.

“It does not escape to space or bounce long distances as predicted by others, but instead stays locally trapped, executing oscillations over a shaded region of 1 to 10 metres (yards) in size. These other trajectories are possible, but we now show a third new motion that is possible,” Collier said.

This effect should be especially prominent during dusk and dawn, according to the team, as regions become partially illuminated while features like mountains and crater rims cast long shadows.

“The dust is an indicator of unusual surface electric fields. In these shaded regions, the surface is negatively charged compared to the sunlit regions. This creates a locally complex, larger electric field with separate positively and negatively charged regions, called a dipole field, over the shaded region,” said William Farrell of Nasa Goddard. “The dust performed its swinging motion under the influence of this dipole. Such a surface process occurring on the moon at the line where night transitions to day, called the terminator, might also occur at small bodies like asteroids. It might be a fundamental process occurring at airless rocky bodies,” Farrell said.

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