Aug 12, 1996

Upcoming Shuttle Experiment Offers Insight into The Mechanics of Granular Materials

Revision: March 3, 2017

Granular materials are a form of matter that we encounter every day, yet we often fail to appreciate their many faces in nature. Sand is an excellent example. On an average day at the beach, we can build a sandcastle, a seemingly solid structure, yet also pour sand from one bucket to another as easily as we pour a glass of water. It can act on one hand like a solid, yet on the other like a liquid.

The principal strength of these types of granular materials - whether it's the soil under your house or the sand under your feet at the beach - is friction and geometric interlocking of the small particles. If the material is forced together, it becomes very stiff. For instance, coffee, which is also a granular material, becomes stiff like a brick when packaged under vacuum. Conversely, if the material is only loosely held together, it can be soft, weak, and can even display properties found in liquids such as flow.

Scientists from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama are teaming with colleagues from the University of Colorado at Boulder to study the behavior of these types of granular materials during the upcoming flight of the space shuttle Atlantis on STS-79. Their experiment is called the Mechanics of Granular Materials (MGM) experiment. Scientists are taking advantage of the reduced gravity environment found aboard the space shuttle to focus on how these materials behave under very low stresses. On the ground, the earth's gravity can collapse soil samples under their own weight during these low stress conditions.

The results of these experiments in space may lead to an increase in our knowledge of a wide variety of subjects, including improved selection and preparation of building sites, better management of undeveloped land, earthquake engineering, coastal and offshore engineering, mining, transport and handling of granular materials such as grains and powders, and soil erosion, which irreversibly depletes fertile top-soil, to name a few.