Uni works with NASA on lunar soils

Mathematicians from the University of Melbourne are on the NASA team unlocking the secrets of Martian and lunar soils. The Melbourne researchers and students are using complex mathematical modelling and simulated materials to determine how Mars and Moon surface soil – known as regolith – would react to attempts to drill, dig or build on it.

Led by Dr Antoinette Tordesillas from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, the researchers and students are the only Australians on the NASA space soil team. The knowledge gained from modelling common granular materials on earth, such as sand and gravel, will also be used to inform their study.

“There are literally millions of particles in any handful of granular material. They are often of different shapes and totally unpredictable,” Dr Tordesillas says.

Simulated Mars and lunar soils have been manufactured to have the same mineral and geometrical properties as those NASA expects to find, based on observations from photographs and detailed information sent back to Earth by space rovers. Dr Tordesillas and postgraduate student Maya Muthuswamy brought the soil simulants back to Melbourne after a research visit to NASA earlier in the year.

US President George Bush has decreed that NASA will make extended human missions to the Moon by 2020, and live and work there for periods of time. Human travel to Mars will also occur in the near future. Collaborating with researchers at NASA and US universities, the University of Melbourne researchers will use computer modelling to determine how both the individual grains and masses of different soils will react under pressure.

Dr Tordesillas says the research poses a great challenge for mathematicians, scientists and engineers worldwide.

“The dynamics of granular materials such as sand, soil and gravel are still largely unknown here on Earth, let alone in a space environment where gravity is greatly reduced,” she said. “We know a lot about the behaviour of liquids, gases and solids but we know very little about granular materials even though they are an integral part of nearly all our major industries.

“Granular processing operates at very low efficiency levels – typically no more than 60 per cent of design capacity – a far cry from fluids processing which operates on average at above 96 per cent. This costs industries billions of dollars each year. Due to this lack of understanding, we allow large margins for error when we build structures on Earth – but we will not have this luxury on the Moon and Mars where the margin of safety on virtually all aspects of exploration is considerably less.

“It is also very difficult and expensive to transport materials and equipment to the Moon and Mars. We can’t just pop over there if something breaks down: to haul a pint of water to the Moon will cost you around $US10 000.”

Dr Tordesillas says the research project is a great opportunity for University of Melbourne students to get involved in cutting edge research from as early as undergraduate level. The University of Melbourne has received a $92 000 grant for a collaborative research project with North Carolina’s Duke University and NASA under the Australian Research Council International Linkage grant scheme.

[By Janine Sim-Jones, UniNews Vol. 15, No. 19 16 - 30 October 2006]
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