Regolith (Greek: "blanket rock") is a layer of loose,
heterogeneousmaterial covering solid rock. It includes dust, soil, broken rock, and other related materials and is present on Earth, the Moon, some asteroids, and other planets. The term was first defined by George P. Merrillin 1897 who stated, "In places this covering is made up of material originating through rock-weathering or plant growth " in situ". In other instances it is of fragmental and more or less decomposed matter drifted by wind, water or ice from other sources. This entire mantle of unconsolidated material, whatever its nature or origin, it is proposed to call the regolith." [Merrill, G. P. (1897) "Rocks, rock-weathering and soils," New York: MacMillan Company, 411p.]
On the Earth
On Earth, the regolith is composed of the following subdivisions;
Alluviumor recent unlithified transported cover
* "Saprolith", generally divided into the
saprolite": completely oxidised bedrock
**"Lower saprolite": chemically reduced partially weathered rocks
**"Saprock": fractured bedrock with weathering restricted to fracture margins.
In some instances, for example in the
cratons, thin veneers of unconsolidated alluvium, colluviumor debris may be considered part of the regolith, especially if considerably younger than the basement or bedrock.
The origins of regolith on
Earthare weatheringand biological processes; if it contains a significant proportion of biological compounds it is more conventionally referred to as soil. People also call various types of earthly regolith by such names as dirt, dust, gravel, sand, and (when wet) mud.
On Earth, the presence of regolith is one of the important factors for most
life, since few plants can grow on or within solid rock and animals would be unable to burrow or build shelter without loose material.
On the Moon
Apollo 11shows the fine and powdery texture of lunar soil.]
Nearly the entire lunar surface is covered with regolith,
bedrockbeing exposed only on very steep-sided crater walls and the occasional lava channel. This regolith has been formed over the last 4.6 billion years by the impact of large and small meteoroids and the steady bombardment of micrometeoroids and solar and galactic charged particles breaking down surface rocks.
The impact of micrometeoroids, sometimes travelling faster than 60,000 mph (30 km/s), generates enough heat to melt or partially vaporize dust particles. This melting and refreezing welds particles together into glassy, jagged-edged "agglutinates." [cite news
last = Mangels
first = John
title = Coping with a lunar dust-up
publisher = The Seattle Times
url = http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2003572876_moondust15.html
accessdate = 2007-02-16 ]
The regolith is generally about 4-5 meters thick in mare areas and 10-15 m in older highland regions. [Heiken et al (1991) Lunar Sourcebook, a user's guide to the Moon. New York: Cambridge University Press. 736p. ISBN 0521334446] Below this true regolith is a region of blocky and fractured bedrock created by larger impacts which is often referred to as the "megaregolith".
lunar soilis often used interchangeably with "lunar regolith" but typically refers to the finer fraction of regolith, that which is composed of grains one centimeter in diameter or less. Some have argued that the term " soil" is not correct in reference to the Moon because soil is defined as having organic content, whereas the Moon has none. However, standard usage among lunar scientists is to ignore that distinction. "Lunar dust" generally connotes even finer materials than lunar soil, the fraction which is less than 30 micrometres in diameter.
The physical and optical properties of lunar regolith are altered through a process known as
space weathering, which darkens the regolith over time, causing crater rays to fade and disappear.
During the early phases of the Apollo Moon landing program,
Thomas Goldof Cornell Universityand part of President's Science Advisory Committeeraised a concern that the thick dust layer at the top of the regolith would not support the weight of the lunar module and that the module might sink beneath the surface. However, Joseph Veverka (also of Cornell) pointed out that Gold had miscalculated the depth of the overlying dust, [ [http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F02E7D61139F937A15755C0A9629C8B63 Thomas Gold, Astrophysicist And Innovator, Is Dead at 84 - New York Times ] ] which was only a couple of centimeters thick. Indeed, the regolith was found to be quite firm by the robotic Surveyor spacecraft that preceded Apollo, and during Apollo program the astronauts often found it necessary to use a hammerto drive a core sampling tool into it.
Mars is covered with vast expanses of sand and dust and its surface is littered with rocks and boulders. The dust is occasionally picked up in vast planet-wide
dust storms. Mars dust is very fine and enough remains suspended in the atmosphere to give the sky a reddish hue. The sand is believed to move only slowly in the martian winds due to the very low density of the atmosphere in the present epoch. In the past, liquid water flowing in gullies and river vallies may have shaped the martian regolith. Mars researchers are studying whether groundwater sappingis shaping the martian regolith in the present epoch, and whether carbon dioxide hydrates exist on Mars and play a role. It is believed that large quantities of water and carbon dioxide ices remain frozen within the regolith in the equatorial parts of Mars and on its surface at higher latitudes.
Asteroids have regoliths developed by meteoroid impact. The final images taken by the
NEAR Shoemakerspacecraft of the surface of Eros are the best images we have of an asteroidal regolith. The recent Japanese Hayabusamission also returned spectacular and surprising images of an asteroidal regolith on an asteroid so small it was thought that gravity was too low to develop and maintain a regolith.
Titan is known to have extensive fields of dunes, though the origin of the material forming the dunes is not known - it could be small fragments of water ice eroded by flowing methane, or possibly particulate organic matter that formed in Titan's atmosphere and rained down on the surface. Scientists are beginning to call this loose icy material "regolith" because of the mechanical similarity with regolith on other bodies, although traditionally (and etymologically) the term had been applied only when the loose layer was composed of
mineralgrains like quartzor plagioclaseor rock fragments that were in turn composed of such minerals. Loose blankets of ice grains were not considered to be regolith because when they appear on Earth in the form of snowthey behave differently than regolith, the grains melting and fusing with only small changes in pressure or temperature. The idea of an ice-regolith complete with erosionand aeolian and/or sedimentary processes is new to Titan because of its thermodynamic environment.
Huygens probeused a penetrometeron landing to characterize the mechanical properties of the local regolith. The surface itself was reported to be a clay-like "material which might have a thin crust followed by a region of relative uniform consistency." Subsequent analysis of the data suggests that surface consistency readings were likely caused by "Huygens" displacing a large pebble as it landed, and that the surface is better described as a 'sand' made of ice grains. [ [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4417503.stm Titan probe's pebble 'bash-down'] , BBC News, 10 April 2005.] The images taken after the probe's landing show a flat plain covered in pebbles. The pebbles, which may be made of water ice, are somewhat rounded, which may indicate the action of fluids on them. [ [http://www.planetary.org/news/2005/0115_The_Planetary_Societys_Huygens_Weblog.html New Images from the Huygens Probe: Shorelines and Channels, But an Apparently Dry Surface] , Emily Lakdawalla, 2005-01-15, verified 2005-03-28]
In-situ resource utilization
* [http://epsc.wustl.edu/admin/resources/meteorites/lunar/regolith_breccia.htm Lunar Regolith and Fragmental Breccias]
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