If commercialization of space, other than LEO, occurs in the next few decades, it will be with lunar operations. Whether those are robotic recovery of scarce minerals, or manned operations, equipment will still need to be designed that will handle, move and process regolith under reduced gravity. Because of the great expense of moving mass to the moon (~$2M per kg in 2009), most testing of equipment will be done terrestrially. The low-g simulants developed under this research will provide an economical means of doing preliminary flow/no-flow condition testing of regolith handling hardware, intended for use on the moon or other low-g environments.
Almost all plans for extended lunar operations include the production of oxygen from lunar regolith, but even shorter missions will involve collection, moving, handling, and often processing of fine cohesive regolith powder. Reduced gravity will increase the sensitivity of handling and processing equipment to the high-cohesion properties of the fine regolith powder, and dramatically increase the likelihood of plugging or no-flow conditions (as occurred with the Phoenix regolith delivery for testing on Mars, for example). This project includes the design of a series of parabolic-flight regolith simulant flow calibration tests, using existing lunar and Martian regolith simulants. Utilization of these flow-calibration tests, to verify that the new low-g simulants do indeed mimic the effects of reduced gravity, will provide NASA designers the confidence needed to utilize these low-g simulants early in the design/testing process, thereby minimizing the number of no-flow surprises later, when real reduced-gravity environments are encountered.