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University of Utah study points to moon dust as a possible way to slow climate change

The waning gibbous moon seen above the Earth's horizon from the International Space Station, some 272 miles above the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Argentina, Jan. 21, 2022.
The waning gibbous moon seen above the Earth's horizon from the International Space Station, some 272 miles above the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Argentina, Jan. 21, 2022.

A new University of Utah study proposes an interesting solution to limit the effects of climate change: using moon dust to shield the Earth from the sun.

Although it might sound like something out of Star Trek, using dust to help shade the Earth is actually rooted in science fact, and not science fiction.

We've come to know that small amounts of mass can produce large quantities of dust that can intercept starlight,” said University of Utah Professor Ben Bromley, who co-authored the study with researchers from Harvard & Smithsonian. “And so for us, the idea of using dust came from that angle.”

His research shows that, in theory, the same could be applied to dust from the moon blocking light from our sun.

Bromley said launching dust from the moon requires significantly less energy than launching it from Earth. Rockets would carry and deploy their payload in a specific location in space, called a Lagrange Point. This would allow large quantities of dust to stay in between the Earth and the sun for a longer period of time than if they were in a regular orbit.

The catch is, as the dust eventually dissipates, it would have to be replenished every few days to the tune of 10 million tons per year.

Bromley said he’s excited to see what feedback the study gets from the greater scientific community.

“We're really hoping that, you know, somebody with the expertise at performing feats of engineering on the moon will go, ‘Oh, yeah, we got this,’” he said.

There are no rocket launch facilities on the moon. But with NASA’s Artemis program now exploring the moon, the idea is not as out there as it might seem.

But some say while it’s an exciting idea, there are tradeoffs that need to be considered too.

“If you dim the sunlight by some percentage, your solar panels are not going to work as well,” said BYU Professor of Geological Sciences Jani Radebaugh. “Would we be ready to accept that as a planet in exchange for calming down the weather, calming down these disasters while we figure out what to do in the long term about a heated atmosphere?”

Despite the initial questions, Radebaugh still sees value in exploring this idea and others like it.

“You want to do the study because you want to know what all your options are,” she said. “You don't want to find out a couple hundred years later that, you know what? We could have just done this thing with the dust and that would have helped solve a lot of these problems. It's always good to think really broadly and really openly and creatively and just make sure we understand all the things that we can do.”

Others would like to see solutions found on Earth before any dust-filled rockets launch into space.

If it does get to the point where we're [approaching a climate disaster], we're going to have to do something I'm almost going to call outrageous,” said NASA Ambassador to Utah Patrick Wiggins. “But desperate times call for desperate measures.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, global temperatures have risen 0.32 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1981. That’s more than twice as fast as the increases seen since 1880.

Bromley admits the amount of dust and other resources make the concept impractical in the long-term, but it could provide more time while other Earth-bound solutions are worked on.

Ideas like ours would only be part of a climate change mitigation strategy.We would still have to do the long-term hard work of reducing greenhouse gas emission and greenhouse gasses in general.”

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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