UWA Moon dust expert's legacy continues to shape space industry

As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of astronaut John Glenn’s flyover, which put Perth on the space map, it is timely to remember the achievements of The University of Western Australia’s Adjunct Professor and physicist Brian O’Brien who helped NASA land on the Moon.

Professor O’Brien, who died in 2020, was fascinated by science and his lifelong passion for lunar research changed our understanding of the Moon, aided global space exploration and was pivotal to some of the successes of NASA.

Best known for his research into lunar dust, Professor O’Brien highlighted how hazardous it was for astronauts and their equipment.

He taught and collaborated with NASA astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Gene Cernan, believing the biggest challenge for lunar adventurers was indeed the movement of the fine, sticky Moon dust on which they were to land.

Professor O’Brien’s matchbox-sized dust detectors (Apollo Dust Detectors) were used throughout Apollo missions to record this movement, with the records sent back to Earth on magnetic tape.

His invention was deployed before either the Soviet Lunar 9 or the US Surveyor 1 had even taken the first photos of lunar soil.

Professor Peter Quinn, Chairman of the Board of UWA’s International Space Centre, said Professor O’Brien’s legacy remained strong with UWA institutions continuing to work with agencies such as NASA.

“He was a true supporter of UWA and its efforts in space, and never ceased in coming up with new ideas on how to explore the solar system,” Professor Quinn said.

“The International Space Centre continues to be involved with NASA – we’re funded by the Australian Space Agency to be part of the studies that are contributing to NASA’s Artemis mission to land men and first women on the moon this decade.”

Professor Quinn said Professor O’Brien helped shape the space industry when he rallied for it to recognise the dangers of space dust.

“As space moves into the private and civil sector, our strengths need to be about more than rockets and spacecraft,” Professor Quinn said.

“The International Space Centre is about all the challenges we are going to face to live and work in space. This includes the architecture of space habitats, medicine in space, agriculture in space, astronomy and yes, living on the moon and Mars.”

Media references

Larissa Wiese (International Space Centre Manager) 08 6488 1135

Annelies Gartner (UWA Media Advisor) 08 6488 6876