Dust has always been (t)here

Dirt or displaced matter? Properties and functions of dust are entangled with human species activities and effects on Earth as co-producing and active agents of planetary ecosystems within larger interplanetary dynamics. Terrestrially, dust and sandstorm derived microbiota contain a spectacular diversity of bacteria, viruses, and fungi feeding on and cohabiting with each other. It is inevitable that the level of microorganism transportation and delivery to extraterrestrial space will in perpetuity exceed those of intended human species. While the theory of panspermia is still debated, panspermian logic outlines how omnipresent dust is vital to planets and central to planetarity.


Can a particulate matter initiate and archive life?

Panspermia — life delivered to Earth from non-terrestrial fluxes of microscopic organic matter encapsulated in agglomerated dust material.  

Is it dirt or displaced matter? 

Dust becomes dirty when it is charged with human emotional subjectivity and categorically cleaved: known or unknown; intentional or accidental; functional or leftover. Dust is a collection of microscopic particles of material and may constitute: industrial smog, black carbon, soot, transportation emissions, microplastics, household fibers, microorganisms, viruses, bacteria, spores, pollen, insect fragments, skin scales, desert sand, aeolian dust, volcanic ash, forest fire smog, archeological remains, soil, sea salt, ancient dust, orbit debris, stardust, extraterrestrial dust, interplanetary dust particles, smart dust, soilchips, cyborg dirt, and much more.

Materially, dust potentiates collective being. Dirt exposes a system.


Once dust is airborne, it is considered an aerosol. Dust enters the highest reaches of the atmosphere and circulates there. Such aerosolized dust is visible yet adequately light for movement by wind, gravity, and electromagnetic forces.Far from inert, these dust cycles in atmospheric media perform many functions of nutrient, connector, contaminant, transport, and shield in diverse biogeochemical systems.

Dust can be an investigative tool to derive compositional description of gaseous, liquid, and solid matter; geochronological identification; source tracing; and highly complex remote sensing resource flow models. In an attempt to model distant climate conditions, dust is an agent of information linking elements and processes together.

Industrial processes — extraction, construction, agriculture among many — drive an increasing amount of circulating dust in the atmosphere, complicating greenhouse gas-driven anthropogenic global warming. Such climatic processes and atmospheric characteristics of dust flows slowly accumulate and imprint themselves onto surfaces of Earth. 
At present, dust is just barely computable. Its planetary-scale effect is only imaginable through application of advanced computational technologies. The NASA Center for Climate Simulation’s Goddard Earth Observing System Model (GEOS-5) ran for 2 years and required 3,750 processors of the Discover supercomputer, consuming over 3 million processor hours while producing 400 terabytes of data. Using GEOS-5, the 10-kilometer global mesoscale simulation “Nature Run” explores the evolution of surface temperatures; global weather patterns; the dispersion of global aerosols from dust, biomass burning, fossil fuel emissions, and volcanoes; and the winds that transport these aerosols from the surface to upper-levels; and the winds that transport these aerosols.

Amid concerns for rising sea levels, a third of the Earth's terrestrial area will be subject to drier conditions due to hotter temperatures and changing precipitation patterns. NASA’s GEOS-5 tracks and assimilates surface temperature measurements from more than 26,000 weather stations, thousands of ship- and buoy-based observations of sea surface temperatures, and automated temperature measurement recordings from multiple Antarctic research stations.

Previously temporary Dust Bowl conditions may be an enduring climatic fact of the North American Southwest. One of the primary U.S. farming heartlands in the Central Plains spanning Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska are projected to become more arid. This aridity is not simply due to less rain in the future, but because sustained hotter temperatures will drive evaporation to dry out the rich soils. Once an innovative tech for recovering and upscaling industrial agriculture after the Dust Bowl in 1930s and 1970s, center pivot irrigation in arid zones of the Great Plains drains underground aquifers at rates which exceed natural replenishment.

Winds whip the Salton Sea, California, United States, and respiratory illnesses such and related diseases (asthma, bronchitis, allergies, acute and chronic asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, acute pesticide poisoning, respiratory distress, premature death, diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular diseases) in the Coachella valley soar, portending failures of hydroindustrial agriculture empires past.


The largest areas with high dust intensities are in the Northern Hemisphere, a broad dust belt that extends from the west coast of North Africa, over the Middle East, Central and South Asia, to China. Dust deterritorializes and destabilizes terrestrially fixed notions of sovereign borders, ecosystem zoning, and effectual decision-making impact distance.

Drained throughout the Soviet Union to water the Central Asian deserts, by 1995 the Аral Sea, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, had lost 3/4 of its water and half of its surface. The newly exposed seabed is a source of over 100 million tons of natural and industrial salts, agricultural poisons, runoff fertilizers, military biological warfare test site leftovers, disposed construction debris, and other life-harmful industrial chemicals blended into friable pre-aerosol saline crusts. 
Proximal unstable atmospheric stratification derived from sharp topographic differences drives a newly documented weather phenomenon: salt dust storms. As strong currents of air traverse the Aral Sea from East to West, its distinctive dust blend is detected on glaciers of Greenland, in forests of Norway, in Moscow smog, on Belarusian fields, and in the blood of penguins in Antarctica.

Dust flows transmit and are retransmitted through the atmosphere, penetrating every ecosystem and nutrient cascade. Each year over 27 million tons of Sahara dust becomes a Transatlantic aerosol, supplying the Amazon basin with phosphorus laden storm clouds which deliver a crucial nutrient for plant life. NASA satellites have three-dimensionally mapped these Saharna Transatlantic atmospheric dust logistics. This enormously complex data set is derived from lidar instruments on NASA's Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO), space platform from 2007 through 2013. Dust collected from ground stations in Bodélé Depression, Barbados, and Miami materially verifies remote sensing quantitative observations.

︎︎︎The data show that wind and weather pick up on average 182 million tons of dust each year and carry it past the western edge of the Sahara at longitude 15W. This volume is the equivalent of 689,290 semi trucks filled with dust. The dust then travels 1,600 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, though some drops to the surface or is flushed from the sky by rain. Near the eastern coast of South America, at longitude 35W, 132 million tons remain in the air, and 27.7 million tons — enough to fill 104,908 semi trucks — fall to the surface over the Amazon basin. About 43 million tons of dust travel farther to settle out over the Caribbean Sea, past longitude 75W.︎︎︎

Massive iron-soil laded dust storms in Australia cause equivalent  phytoplankton blooms in the Tasman Sea. These dust mediated surges of microscopic life manifesting on a macro scale pull substantial amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Such teleconnection patterns reflect large-scale changes in the atmospheric waves and jet streams, and influence surface temperatures, rainfalls, storm events, and other varied weather phenomena.

︎︎︎The Darwin Project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s general circulation model shows four dominant phytoplankton types from 1994-1998.  Across these four years, the model captures flow fields consisting of inorganic nutrients, 78 species of phytoplankton and zooplankton, as well as particulate and dissolved organic matter. Visually, red represents diatoms (big phytoplankton, which need silica), yellow represents flagellates (other big phytoplankton), green represents prochlorococcus (small phytoplankton that cannot use nitrate), and cyan represents synechococcus (other small phytoplankton). In particular, the role of the swirls and filaments (mesoscale features) appear important in maintaining high biodiversity in the ocean.︎︎︎


Aerosolized particulates as pathogen/antigen delivery platforms have long been studied by biological weapons programs and their countermeasure vaccine programs. Dust as a potent bio-logistics problem spawned new fields of xenobiology and material science.

Outside of immediate scientific and industrial bio-logistics interest, dust contains vibrant microbiota processes of its own. Sandstorms also inject substantial quantities of living microorganisms into origin-distant ecosystems. Dust event-derived microbiota contain as-of-yet barely articulated spectacular diversity of bacteria, viruses, and fungi feeding on and cohabiting with each other, among which are Alternaria, Aspergillus, Cladosporium, Penicillium, Proteobacteria, Modestobacter,  Firmicutes, Bacteroidetes, Rhizobiales, Actinobacteria, Sphingomonadales, Rhodobacterales, Geodermatophilaceae, Bacillaceae, Cyanobacteria, Pseudonocardia, Streptomyces, Thermomonosporaceae, Nitrospira and Porphyrobacter, Deinococcus, Hymenobacter, Methylobacterium, Rubrobacter, Kineococcus, Planococcus, Subtercola, Salinarimonas, Nocardioides, Circoviridae, Geminiviridae, Nanoviridae.

With more than a quadrillion quadrillion viral types on Earth, less than .0002% pose a known threat to human health. Nevertheless, human purity-oriented lifestyles have decreased exposure to pathogens that are critical to the development of early life-generated immune mechanisms. Contemporary commonsensical obsession with cleanliness contaminates imagination by spreading the ideology of impurity into debates regarding exploration of other planets. Purity myth-making is reproduced on the scale of the pale blue dot.

Dust has always been (t)here. Dust predates cognition. Dust exceeds current boundaries of thought, flowing and transmitting on scales not yet developed. Logarithmic distance scalar exercises with an unfixed cosmic eye leave entire planets appearing as microparticles in their host star systems and galaxies. Dust originating from a 309 trillion kilometer distant supernova’s arrival on Earth’s biosphere is thought to be a major event in evolutionary biology. Earth and the Solar System have never been compartmentalized. A roughly estimated 15 kilotons of cosmic dust infiltrates the atmosphere every year delivering energy, mass, and information into our biome.


Cowering in the defiant scalar void, we turn inward. Dark forest theory is intimately and microscopically operationalized. Setting the boundary of a planet as an isolated system from other planets, current planetary protection policies are focused on accounting of bacterial and dust material entering or leaving the planet, with protection as an ambiguous two way street.

︎︎︎COPUOS Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs COSPAR PPP Planetary Protection Policy of The International Science Council’s Committee on Space Research Committee on Contamination on Extraterrestrial Exploration Consultative Group on Potentially Harmful Effects of Space Experiments Moon Agreement The Council of the European Space Agency Planetary Protection Policy NASA Office of Planetary Protection Biological Contamination Control for Outbound and Inbound Planetary Spacecraft Planetary Protection Provisions for Robotic Extraterrestrial Missions JAXA Management Requirement JMR-014  Roscosmos Russian Federal Laws “on technical regulation” No. 184-FZ︎︎︎

As humans look ever outwards for space exploration, forward contamination is now quietly accepted as inevitable.

From 2015 to 2018, Deinococcus radiodurans — a bacteria known for its extraordinary capacity to survive high levels of radiation — was exposed to extraterrestrial conditions outside of the ISS by the Japanese Tanpopo astrobiology orbital mission. The surviving cell samples did not exhibit any lasting damage. From 2015 to 2018, Deinococcus radiodurans - a bacteria known for its extraordinary capacity to survive high levels of radiation - was exposed to extraterrestrial conditions outside of the ISS by the Japanese Tanpopo astrobiology orbital mission. The surviving cell samples did not exhibit any lasting damage.

A consortium of non-spore-forming bacteria was found on the outside of the ISS porthole among dust samples taken in 2016 by the ROSCOSMOS and the Russian Academy of Sciences. Also 39 fungal species were measured in the dust collected from HEPA filters in the U.S. Laboratory Module — aptly named Destiny — of the International Space Station (ISS) over a period of several weeks in 2007.

Our species’ inclination for narrowly focused experimentation and concentrated proximal engineering efforts has generated new dust types.

Spacecraft industrial clean rooms, marvels of current-day modernist technoscience are as symbolically potent as they are practically weak. Stringent sterilization, sanitation, and purification rituals seeking to exorcise contaminating particles have bred pre-selected extremophilic microorganisms well adapted to surviving harsh biochemical treatments, radiation exposure, and the absence of air or moisture.

Military material science legacies and astrobiological milestones coalesce as a potential outlet for engineering Earth dust within human-mediated gradient cascades of mutual automation on which our immediate and long-term survival is contingent.


It’s unavoidable that microorganism transportation and delivery to extraterrestrial space will exceed those of intended human species. The capacity of our microbiota shareholders to adapt their properties for long-term survival exceeding our own species in outer space requires consideration. Properties and functions of dust are entangled with human species activities and effects on Earth as co-producing and active agents of planetary ecosystems within larger interplanetary dynamics.

Dust cosmology unfolds possibilities for viable planetarity of Earth and responsible space exploration. 

  Dust is not dirty
    Dust is matter
        Dust is not leftover 
            Dust is information
               Dust is not obvious
                   Dust is interstitial
                       Dust is not homogenous
                           Dust is capacious
                                Dust is not static 

    Dust is a cosmological agent.

Curator and writer: Selbi Jumayeva
Creative director and editor: Alisa Verbina
Sound design: Darria Driamina, Stas Khaydarov
Voice acting: Alisa Verbina

Thank you to: Maksat Babayev, Merve Bedir, Ryan Bishop, Vladimir Esenin, Sona Gasparyan, Alena Ivanova, Lukas Likavcan, Aigerim Kapar, Timur Karpov, Ed Keller, Metahaven, Robert Pietrusko, Dasha Silkina, Liam Young,  Kamila Zakhidova

This project was initially developed and produced by researchers Selbi Jumayeva and Alisa Verbina during The Terraforming think tank at Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture, and Design in Moscow. 

Special thanks to our program directors Benjamin H. Bratton and Nicolay Boyadjiev, and our fellow researchers for all feedback and discussion of ideas, speculations, and propositions for a viable planetarity and much more over the five-month long TTF Program 2021.

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