Moon Dust Smells Like Spent Gunpowder

Daven Hiskey 9
moonToday I found out Moon dust smells like spent gunpowder.  This is according to the astronauts that have had the opportunity to smell fresh Moon dust that had been tracked into the lunar module after excursions out on the surface of the Moon.

The astronauts didn’t just smell the dust though, they also touched and tasted it.  They say it feels like soft snow, though despite the softness is surprisingly abrasive, extremely clingy, and near impossible to brush off.  The taste apparently is also very similar to gunpowder, according to Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke.

Interestingly, Moon dust and gunpowder aren’t similar at all in composition.  So why it should smell like this is a mystery; Moon dust doesn’t smell like anything once back on Earth.  Thus, this smell has not been able to be studied due to the fact that the seals were broken on the containers containing fresh Moon dust (dust that had not been exposed to moist air).  What caused the breaking of the seals was actually the unexpected abrasiveness of the Moon dust, which cut the seals.

There are two main theories as to why the Moon dust smells like this when it first comes in contact with moist air.  First, perhaps we are seeing the “desert rain” effect.  This is where the completely moisture free dust comes in contact with the moist air in the lunar module.  This releases odors from the dust that have lain dormant for untold years.  The second theory is that there is some sort of oxidation taking place.  Oxidation is very similar to burning, but without the smoke as it happens too slowly.  So this might produce this burning gunpowder smell.

The Moon dust itself is made up of primarily silicon dioxide glass that has been shattered into tiny pieces.  There is also quite a bit of iron, calcium, and magnesium.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Jack Schmitt, an Apollo 17 astronaut and geologist, has the distinction of being the first human to have extraterrestrial hay fever.  After returning to the lunar module and taking his helmet off, he had an instant reaction to the Moon dust with his nose stuffing up quickly.  This lasted a couple hours before going away.  However, every time he came back inside the lunar module after tracking in fresh Moon dust, he had the same reaction, though lessened each time as his body developed an immunity to whatever vapors the Moon dust was giving off.   Also according to Schmitt, he wasn’t the only one to experience this, but pilots don’t like to admit to any adverse symptoms or they think they’ll be grounded.
  • Scientists believe the Moon formed from a collision between the Earth and a planet-sized object about 4.6 billion years ago, called the “Big Whack”.  When the impact happened, a cloud of vaporized rock shot off the Earth’s surface and went into orbit around the Earth.  Over time, the cloud cooled and condensed into a ring of small, solid objects which then slowly gathered together, eventually forming the Moon.
  • The Moon is on average about 238,855 miles from the Earth, ranging from 225,700 miles to 252,00.
  • The distance around the equator of the moon is about 6,783 miles.  For comparison, that is a little under twice the distance from Seattle Washington, USA to New York city, USA.
  • The Moon has a surface area of about 14.6 million square miles, which is about 92.6% less surface area than the Earth has.  This is about 4 times the surface area of the United States.
  • The gravity on the Moon is about 17% what it is on the Earth.  So if you weigh 200 pounds on Earth, you will weigh 34 pounds on the Moon.
  • If you ever landed on the Moon, you’d need to accelerate to 5,324 mph in order to escape the Moon’s gravitational pull.  This is about 21.3% the speed you’d need to reach to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull.  This speed is called the “escape velocity”.
  • The temperature on the Moon varies from -387 degrees Fahrenheit to 253 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Like the Earth and the rest of our solar system, the Moon is about 4.6 billion years old.
  • The largest crater on the Moon is about 550 miles in diameter and is near the South Pole-Aitken Basin.  The impact caused by the asteroid that formed this crater was almost powerful enough to split the Moon into pieces.
  • The Moon used to have very active volcanoes.  The dark areas of the moon, called maria (meaning “seas”), are cratered landscapes that were flooded with lava, which then froze forming smooth rock areas that resemble, from a distance, bodies of water on Earth.
  • Water on the Moon exists in the form of ice, delivered to the Moon by comets.  Areas that are always shadowed are the only places that water can exist on the Moon as it needs to be frozen at all times or it would melt and evaporate quickly.
  • One Moon “day” is 29 1/2 Earth days.  This rotation coincides perfectly with its rotation around the Earth so that we always only see one side of the Moon.  Coincidence?  I think not!  Wake up Sheeple!
  • The Moon is only tilted on its axis about 1.5 degrees; so there are no seasons on the moon.  In contrast, the Earth is tilted about 23.5 degrees on its axis, which is why we have seasons.
  • The Moon rises in the east and sets in the west, the same as the Sun.  Each day, the Moon rises about 50 minutes later than the day before.
  • During night time, when the pressure of gases on the lunar surface is at its greatest, it is still only about 3.9 x 10^-14 pounds per square inch of pressure.  For comparison, that is a stronger vacuum than most laboratories on the Earth can create.
  • There is so little density to the exosphere of the Moon that the rocket exhaust released during each Apollo landing temporarily doubled the total mass of the entire exosphere of the moon.

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9 Comments »

  1. Jacob May 12, 2010 at 9:51 am - Reply

    Earth is 14-15 pounds per square inch, so I’m think the Moon is probably more like 3.9 x 10^-14 pounds per square inch of pressure (i.e. missing negative).

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven May 12, 2010 at 3:26 pm - Reply

      Yep, typo there. Thanks for catching it! :-)

  2. Mico September 29, 2010 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    It’s probably moons native bacteria reacting with the moisture in the air :P

  3. Vincent May 15, 2012 at 7:01 am - Reply

    Were you joking about the “wake up[,] sheeple?” part?

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven May 16, 2012 at 1:28 am - Reply

      @Vincent: Of course :-)

  4. kriskroll January 30, 2014 at 6:12 pm - Reply

    I wonder if they’re actually smelling the moon forming impact?

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