Cooking Asteroids

A tech startup, Deep Space Industries, has created synthetic asteroid dirt, also known as Regolith, to sell to space agencies hoping to learn about asteroid matter.

TRANSCRIPT

A tech startup, Deep Space Industries, has created synthetic asteroid dirt, also known as regolith, to sell to space agencies hoping to learn about asteroid matter.

Our partner, 'Science Friday, ' has the story.

I make asteroid dirt for a living.

Dr. Stephen Covey works for Deep Space Industries, a tech startup whose mission is to make commercial space exploration possible.

We're standing inside of Deep Space Industries' Florida lab, where we actually manufacture asteroid dirt.

Known scientifically as regolith.

It's really the surface covering of an asteroid.

But not just any asteroids.

We're making asteroid simulants of the asteroids which we believe are the most valuable, that have basically water and volatiles in them.

If you take water and CO2, you can make rocket fuels.

You could also make methane and plastics.

And with the remaining metals, you can make structures.

Now, how do they know that all this good stuff is inside the asteroids?

We don't really know.

We haven't been on an asteroid yet, but we can get a pretty good guess because we have meteorites all around us, and we can study the meteorites, and we can make simulants that are much cheaper than meteorites and in much larger quantities, but they have the same minerals which we think are the most common ones on asteroids.

Common minerals such as olivine, pyrite and magnetite make up the core of their mixture.

We work with the University of Central Florida, and they basically come up with a mineralogical recipe that says, 'This is what you need to work toward.'

Armed with all these ingredients, it's time to blend them together.

What we are doing is quite closely akin to cooking.

We take raw minerals, and we crush them into a powder of an appropriate size.

After we crush it, we measure out appropriate proportions of all of the different minerals that go into it.

Now add water and stir.

We use a large industrial mixer to mix it into a mud pie, a paste.

What you do next with this mud pie depends on what type of asteroid you want to simulate.

For some kinds of asteroids, which have clays in them that bind things together, we just take that, stick it into a drying room, and what comes out is then a hardened cake of asteroid regolith.

The other kind of asteroid, the ones that don't have clays in them, we have to bind them together with something else.

We use something called water glass, sodium metasilicate.

When we mix that into our mixture and we microwave it...

For an entire hour.

...it turns it into a hard rock.

Then we run it through a high-speed flail to turn it into a dirt again that we think replicates what we would find on an asteroid.

Sometimes, finding the right ingredients is a little too difficult.

One of the most common kinds of asteroids is basically more than half cronstedtite.

That is not common on the Earth, so no one mines it.

So Deep Space Industries makes it themselves.

We put it in this big pressure cooker.

For every 100 kilograms of phyllite, we add about 40, 45 kilograms of water, seal up the pressure cooker and then heat it up to 410 Fahrenheit for a week, and then we open it up, and out comes the cronstedtite, and it's more than half of some asteroids.

We can make asteroids that are as soft as charcoal or as hard as concrete, and we make the full range because different kinds of asteroids are different strengths.

With their simulants formed, Deep Space Industries delivers them by the bucketful to eager researchers.

We've already shipped to NASA approximately 100 buckets of regolith, and we've sold to other space agencies, other countries.

As more missions to investigate asteroids are planned, Deep Space Industries keeps cooking up simulants to meet the demand.

After all, success depends on their accuracy.

The Japanese tried to bring back samples of Itokawa.

They brought back a lot of valuable stuff, but their sampling mechanism failed.

If they had had good simulants to try against, then maybe their sampling mechanism would have been designed a little bit differently and would have succeeded.

Ultimately, Dr. Covey believes that the simulants will yield more than just pay dirt.

They're the first step in making space mining a reality.

Computers used to be science fiction.

Cameras used to be science fiction.

I think it's inevitable, but we are confident that it's the wave of the future.

For 'Science Friday, ' I'm Luke Groskin.