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What Makes the Clean Room So Clean?

What Makes the Clean Room So Clean?

A large, silver and gold metallic structure is suspended from the ceiling in a spacious room. The structure is hollow with six sides, each covered with a diamond-like pattern. Three people in white bunny suits and blue gloves watch in the foreground. In the background, a large wall covered in small pinkish squares is at the left and another wall with a large viewing window is at the right. Credit: NASA/Jolearra Tshiteya ALT

Roman’s primary structure hangs from cables as it moves into the big clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

What Makes the Clean Room So Clean?

When you picture NASA’s most important creations, you probably think of a satellite, telescope, or maybe a rover. But what about the room they’re made in? Believe it or not, the room itself where these instruments are put together—a clean room—is pretty special. 

A clean room is a space that protects technology from contamination. This is especially important when sending very sensitive items into space that even small particles could interfere with.

There are two main categories of contamination that we have to keep away from our instruments. The first is particulate contamination, like dust. The second is molecular contamination, which is more like oil or grease. Both types affect a telescope’s image quality, as well as the time it takes to capture imagery. Having too many particles on our instruments is like looking through a dirty window. A clean room makes for clean science!

Two people in white “bunny” suits stand on a glossy, white floor. One holds a thin vacuum and the other holds a mop. On the floor behind them are some metallic structures and the wall behind them is covered in pale pink squares. Credit: NASA/Chris GunnALT

Two technicians clean the floor of Goddard’s big clean room.

Our Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland has the largest clean room of its kind in the world. It’s as tall as an eight-story building and as wide as two basketball courts.

Goddard’s clean room has fewer than 3,000 micron-size particles per cubic meter of air. If you lined up all those tiny particles, they’d be no longer than a sesame seed. If those particles were the size of 16-inch (0.4-meter) inflatable beach balls, we’d find only 3,000 spread throughout the whole body of Mount Everest!

A person in a white “bunny” suit and blue gloves is sitting at a desk looking through the eyepiece of a microscope. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn ALT

A clean room technician observes a sample under a microscope.

The clean room keeps out particles larger than five microns across, just seven percent of the width of an average human hair. It does this via special filters that remove around 99.97% of particles 0.3 microns and larger from incoming air. Six fans the size of school buses spin to keep air flowing and pressurize the room. Since the pressure inside is higher, the clean air keeps unclean air out when doors open.

Close-up of a person wearing a white suit, mask, head covering, gloves, and glasses is hunched over a table in a dark room. They hold a small object in their right hand and a device with a grid of blue dots on it in their left hand. The device casts a blue glow on the sample they’re looking at, and on the person too. Credit: NASA/Chris GunnALT

A technician analyzes a sample under ultraviolet light.

In addition, anyone who enters must wear a “bunny suit” to keep their body particles away from the machinery. A bunny suit covers most of the person inside. Sometimes scientists have trouble recognizing each other while in the suits, but they do get to know each other’s mannerisms very well.

A person in a white “bunny” suit, blue-green gloves, a face mask, and goggles stands in the center of a plain blue background. Each element is labeled as follows: gloves, full-body jumpsuit, sometimes glasses or goggles are worn, hairnet under head cover, mask, tape around wrists, and boot covers. At the bottom of the graphic, three items (perfume, lotion, and deodorant) are each inside a red circle with a line through it. Credit: NASA/Shireen DoolingALT

This illustration depicts the anatomy of a bunny suit, which covers clean room technicians from head to toe to protect sensitive technology.

The bunny suit is only the beginning: before putting it on, team members undergo a preparation routine involving a hairnet and an air shower. Fun fact – you’re not allowed to wear products like perfume, lotion, or deodorant. Even odors can transfer easily!

Two Black men, two white women, and two white men each stand in white lab coats and blue gloves. All are smiling. They are in a small room with silver metallic tables, one of which in the foreground reflects some of their likenesses. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn ALT

Six of Goddard’s clean room technicians (left to right: Daniel DaCosta, Jill Bender, Anne Martino, Leon Bailey, Frank D’Annunzio, and Josh Thomas).

It takes a lot of specialists to run Goddard’s clean room. There are 10 people on the Contamination Control Technician Team, 30 people on the Clean Room Engineering Team to cover all Goddard missions, and another 10 people on the Facilities Team to monitor the clean room itself. They check on its temperature, humidity, and particle counts.

A person wearing a white suit, face mask, head covering, and blue gloves with black tape wrapped around the wrists pours a clear liquid from one clear bottle into a larger clear beaker. Credit: NASA/Chris GunnALT

A technician rinses critical hardware with isopropyl alcohol and separates the particulate and isopropyl alcohol to leave the particles on a membrane for microscopic analysis.

Besides the standard mopping and vacuuming, the team uses tools such as isopropyl alcohol, acetone, wipes, swabs, white light, and ultraviolet light. Plus, they have a particle monitor that uses a laser to measure air particle count and size.

The team keeping the clean room spotless plays an integral role in the success of NASA’s missions. So, the next time you have to clean your bedroom, consider yourself lucky that the stakes aren’t so high!

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