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Moon dust: Simulating lunar dirt will make it easier to collect

Imagine planting a garden on the moon – what would the soil feel like? Scientists from University of Bristol are now using virtual reality to dig into this question. They created a digital twin of moon dirt, known as lunar regolith, to understand how lunar soil behaves.

The team created a computer model that acts like a detailed, virtual version of moon dust. This model is based on information from the Apollo missions, including how moon dust sticks together and resists movement in the moon’s vacuum and low gravity.

Simulating moon dust

Traditionally, simulating moon dust was difficult because computers needed to calculate interactions between every single particle, making it too slow for large areas. The new model uses a clever method to solve this problem. It divides the simulated space into tiny cubes, and only checks for collisions between particles in nearby cubes. 

This significantly reduces the number of calculations needed, allowing the model to simulate much larger areas of moon dust more efficiently.

“Think of it like a realistic video game set on the Moon – we want to make sure the virtual version of moon dust behaves just like the actual thing, so that if we are using it to control a robot on the Moon, then it will behave as we expect,” noted study lead author Joe Louca from Bristol’s School of Engineering Mathematics and Technology. 

Testing the stability of moon dust

The scientists carefully compared lunar regolith with specially made materials on Earth that are designed to act like real moon dust. One way they do this is by watching how both the computer model and the fake moon dust flow through funnels of different sizes. This shows them how easily the dust can move around, which is important for planning how to use it during missions to the moon. 

During the test, they also measure how much of a pile the dust makes when they pour it out on a flat surface. This helps them understand how stable the dust is, which is important for building structures on the moon.

Importantly, the “flow” and “piling” of fake moon dust through funnels in the computer model is not a physical process but a simulation. The computer calculates how particles, represented within the model, would move based on their properties and the conditions set in the simulation (like gravity, cohesion, and friction). 

Measuring the flow of small and large particles

The experts found that the model worked well for large dust particles, but not so well for small ones. 

For large tests using funnels, the model worked well for some sizes of fake moon dust particles. Smaller particles got stuck in the funnel, and the model overestimated or underestimated how quickly other sizes flowed compared to real-world tests. Particles between 4 and 5 millimeters in size worked best, matching real-world results except when the funnel was almost blocked.

For smaller tests using funnels, the model had trouble capturing how quickly sand and a specific type of fake moon dust (LMS-1) flowed through funnels of different sizes. Real-world tests showed that both materials flowed faster through wider funnels. The model, however, predicted that LMS-1 would flow slower through wider funnels, likely because it did not fully account for the forces that make the particles stick together. 

Limitations of the lunar dirt model

Larger particles in the model flowed faster than in real-world tests, suggesting the model needs improvement in how it represents these forces.

The model also struggled to predict the angle at which the materials would form a stable pile, again due to simplifications in how it represents the forces between particles.

Overall, the model is a promising tool for studying lunar soil on a large scale, but it needs further development to be more precise, especially in how it represents the forces between particles.

Study significance 

Simulating lunar regolith is crucial for future moon exploration and living there. Understanding moon dust is important for three main reasons:

Building moon equipment

Knowing what moon dust is like helps engineers design rovers, tools, and other equipment that work well on the moon. This includes things like dealing with dust, staying stable on the surface, and making sure materials last in harsh conditions.

Training astronauts

By creating simulations based on real moon dust, astronauts can practice tasks like walking, building, and doing science experiments in an environment that feels almost exactly like the moon. This training is essential for making sure astronauts can do their jobs safely and efficiently when they actually go to the moon.

Growing food on the moon

One exciting idea for long-term moon living is to grow plants there, like in a “moon garden.” To do this, we need to understand the physical and chemical properties of moon dust. This knowledge can help us figure out how to grow plants in it, potentially creating a way to grow food for astronauts on the moon and make it possible for them to live there for longer periods.

Developing realistic computer simulations of moon dust is a big step towards making these ambitious goals a reality.

The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Space Technologies.


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