Chiara Modenese

Doctor of Philosophy, St Anne's College, University of Oxford, Trinity Term 2013

Numerical Study of the Mechanical Properties of Lunar Soil by the Discrete Element Method

Lunar soil, defined as the finest part of the lunar regolith which covers the entire surface of the Moon, has shown to have remarkable shear strength properties, highlighted by the clearly visible effects of soil cohesion. The main objective of this thesis is to unveil the physical explanations causing this unusual soil behaviour in a waterless, airless, lunar environment.
Ultra-High Vacuum (UHV), in particular, is considered responsible for increasing the strength of surface energy forces due to lunar soil outgassing. In turn, the presence of surface energy forces, arising from van der Waals intermolecular forces, is thought to alter the mechanical properties of lunar soil.
A particle-based microscopic approach by means of the Discrete Element Method (DEM) was utilised to investigate the effects of surface energy forces on the macroscopic soil behaviour. A micro-mechanical contact model, based on the JKR theory, was selected to describe the inter-granular behaviour between lunar soil particles. Physical and geometrical parameters typical of lunar soil were employed. Several triaxial tests were run to identify a link, if any, between the microscopic surface energy parameter and the macroscopic soil cohesion, which was interpreted as a true soil cohesion. In addition, very low stress levels and high soil densities were simulated in order to take into account the low gravitational field and the high state of soil compaction caused by continuous meteorite impacts on the Moon.
Results from triaxial tests were analysed at both the peak and critical state. It was found that in the ideal case of perfectly spherical grains, the presence of adhesion is a source of noticeable macroscopic soil cohesion. However, no influence was observed in terms of macroscopic friction angle. Furthermore, a brittle macroscopic soil behaviour was revealed, owing to the simulated inter-granular chemical bonds and the very low stress conditions applied. Finally, similar to the behaviour of cemented sands, very little cohesion was recorded at the critical state.
Subsequently, particle shape effects were investigated by complementing the numerical model with a simple form of inter-particle rolling resistance. Simulations were also run with non-convex grains of increasing geometrical complexity in order to simulate more realistically the irregular shapes of lunar soil grains.
In both cases, the interplay of surface energy forces with particle shape effects resulted in even higher shear strength, with predictions similar to the estimates of shear strength for real lunar soil. Once again, the peak strength was dominated by macroscopic cohesion which, on the other hand, was hardly observable at the critical state, confirming the tendency observed from spherical grains.
Finally, the practical implications of the above findings were discussed in terms of bearing capacity, trafficability and slope stability on the lunar surface. In particular an analytical approach, based on the bearing capacity problem, was devised to study the performance of a rigid wheel rotating on a lunar terrain and operating under different dynamic conditions.

Thesis (24.5Mb, pdf)