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Measuring the mechanical properties of small body regolith layers using a granular penetrometer

Abstract

Small bodies in the solar system are known to be covered by a layer of loose unconsolidated soil composed of grains ranging from dusty sands to rugged boulders. Various geophysical processes have modified these regolith layers since their origin. Therefore, the landforms on regolith-blanketed surfaces hold vital clues for reconstructing the geological processes occurring on small bodies. However, the mechanical strength of small body regolith remains unclear, which is an important parameter for understanding its dynamic evolution. Furthermore, regolith mechanical properties are key factors for the design and operation of space missions that interact with small body surfaces. The granular penetrometer, which is an instrument that facilitates in situ mechanical characterization of surface/subsurface materials, has attracted significant attention. However, we still do not fully understand the penetration dynamics related to granular regolith, partially because of the experimental difficulties in measuring grain-scale responses under microgravity, particularly on the longer timescales of small body dynamics. In this study, we analyzed the slow intrusion of a locomotor into granular matter through large-scale numerical simulations based on a soft sphere discrete element model. We demonstrated that the resistance force of cohesionless regolith increases abruptly with penetration depth after contact and then transitions to a linear regime. The scale factor of the steady-state component is roughly proportional to the internal friction of the granular materials, which allows us to deduce the shear strength of planetary soils by measuring their force-depth relationships. When cohesion is included, due to the brittle behavior of cohesive materials, the resistance profile is characterized by a stationary state at a large penetration depth. The saturation resistance, which represents the failure threshold of granular materials, increases with the cohesion strength of the regolith. This positive correlation provides a reliable tool for measuring the tensile strength of granular regolith in small body touchdown missions.

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Acknowledgements

This work is supported by the National Key R&D Program of China (2019YFA0706500).

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Correspondence to Bin Cheng.

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The authors have no competing interests to declare that are relevant to the content of this article.

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Bin Cheng received his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in aerospace science and technology from Tsinghua University, China, in 2016 and 2021, respectively. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow under the direction of Prof. Hexi Baoyin. His research interests include the granular dynamics during geological processes and spacecraft interaction on small body regolith. E-mail: chengbin.thu@gmail.com.

Erik Asphaug is a professor in Lunar & Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, USA. His research interests include planetary impacts and small body geophysics. He is on the science team of NASA’s Psyche mission to asteroid Psyche, ESA’s Hera mission to asteroid Didymos, and JAXA’s MMX mission to the Martian moons. E-mail: asphaug@lpl.arizona.edu.

Yang Yu is currently a professor at Beihang University, China. He joined the Faculty of Theoretical Mechanics in April 2016. He obtained his B.S. degree in physics from Beihang University in 2009 and his Ph.D. degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Tsinghua University, China, in 2014. He had his postdoctoral position at Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in France from 2014 to 2016. His research interests include the Hamiltonian dynamics of celestial systems and the formation and evolution of solar system small bodies. E-mail: yuyang.thu@icloud.com.

Hexi Baoyin is a professor in School of Aerospace Engineering, Tsinghua University, China. His current research interests include orbit theory in irregular gravitational fields and interplanetary mission analysis and optimization. E-mail: baoyin@tsinghua.edu.cn.

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Cheng, B., Asphaug, E., Yu, Y. et al. Measuring the mechanical properties of small body regolith layers using a granular penetrometer. Astrodyn (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42064-021-0127-8

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s42064-021-0127-8

Keywords

  • small body regolith
  • granular penetrometer
  • small body exploration
  • granular dynamics