Mike Braukus Headquarters, Washington, DC (Phone: 202/358-1979


September 18, 1996

Steve Roy Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL (Phone: 205/544-0034) RELEASE: 96-190 SPACE SHUTTLE STUDY OF GRANULAR MATERIALS HOLDS POTENTIAL FOR EARTH-BOUND PROBLEMS The experiment's name conjures up images of Hollywood and the stars, but it really seeks solutions to many down-to-Earth problems that affect our day-to-day lives. It's called MGM because it studies the Mechanics of Granular Materials. This is the interaction of large numbers of such objects, ranging in size from a grain of sand to a boulder. For decades, researchers seeking to unravel the behavior of these materials have been hampered by Earth's gravity. Today, however, astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis are taking advantage of the microgravity environment of space to study what actually happens to granular materials under low stress. Working with scientists on Earth at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, astronauts on Atlantis will examine materials in simulated conditions that typically are present when granular systems deform or collapse. One common everyday example of MGM is a bag of vacuum-packed coffee. As air presses on the package from the outside, coffee grains are pushed together inside the package and lock each other in place. These collective forces create a brick-like object. However, once the package is ripped open, releasing the pressures, the coffee's grain assembly becomes very weak and soft, moving about freely -- much like a liquid. Soil and other granular materials behave in much the same way, demonstrating a fundamental aspect of granular mechanics: a single shift in conditions can markedly change the properties of bulk material. To understand how such granular materials behave under low

stresses, the Atlantis crew and researchers back on Earth will study three dry soil specimens under different pressures. In later missions, the specimens will be saturated with water, which cannot leave the specimens as they compress. The saturated specimens will be loaded, either by compressing them and then unloading them, or by subjecting them to "cyclic loading," a condition encountered in earthquakes. "Testing granular material in a microgravity environment is a new and unique way of looking into the behavior of such materials under very low, confining pressures," says Costes. The insights offered by this research may be far-reaching: The results of the complete set of experiments aboard Atlantis and later missions could lead to improved selection and preparation of building sites, better management of undeveloped lands, and improve handling of materials in chemical, agricultural and other industries. This research may also be applied to a variety of other fields, including earthquake engineering, landslides, mining, soil erosion and the irreversible loss of enormous amounts of windblown, fertile soil. Other fields that may benefit from the research include coastal and offshore engineering, off-road vehicle engineering, and the handling of granular materials such as grains and powders. Sture and Costes believe one outcome of the experiment may be new methods to more effectively stabilize soils. For earthquake-prone areas, this could lead to more stable foundations for new buildings, as well as retro-fitting foundations of existing buildings. The University of Colorado researcher cites records that detail the collapse of hundreds of grain silos each year across the United States, representing great economic loss to farmers -- and great danger, as well. The key to a majority of these cases is the behavior of the grains. "It is difficult to determine the pressures that the grain exerts on a silo," explains Sture. "The pressure can be highly non-uniform against a silo's walls. Billions of grains form arches, with each arch holding the grains above it, where the pressure is tremendous. Yet the pressure may be next to zero below the arch." It is when a farmer removes some of his grain from a silo -- and the grain is below the supporting arch -- that a dynamic collapse

sometimes occurs, exerting tremendous pressures and instability. "We would like to understand exactly what takes place," he said, "so silos could be designed to be both economical and safe." -end-