Asteroid Dirt

Science Friday, Video Producer Luke Groskin, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss asteroid dirt Regolith and how different it is from the dirt found on Earth.


Joining me now to discuss this is 'Science Friday' video producer Luke Groskin.

What is regolith?

Regolith is just dirt from a moon or Mars or from an asteroid.

What makes it so different?

I mean, we have dirt here, plenty of it.

Well, the dirt that's on an asteroid is very different from the dirt that you'd find here on Earth.


The chemistry of what's actually in that dirt is going to be very different, so our Earth has had, you know, billions of years to have the soil actually generated.

In an asteroid, some of those were created, you know, also billions of years ago, but under very different conditions.

And so, as a result, you get asteroids that are, you know, chock full of these very specific types of minerals, some of which you don't even find here on Earth.

In fact, one of them is called cronstedtite, and you can find it in... conglomerated in some mines, but it's extremely rare in its pure form on Earth, and asteroids are just chock full of cronstedtite.

Most of them are just chock full of cronstedtite.

Can't find it here on Earth.

You do find some things like water, obviously.

That's very valuable.

And you find other types of minerals, certain types of iron that are valuable for if you were going to go mining those asteroids, but it's very... You know, and that's also, just to be clear, very different from the stuff that's on the Moon and also on Mars.

All these soils, this regolith, was formed in different conditions, and so, as a result, you get different chemistries out of it.

We've had probes recently hop onto asteroids.

First of all, the engineering feat and the math involved is amazing.


Right, just the idea that we can get close to, get the right speed and then hop on.

Right, it's so cool.

What do we learn when we actually touch down on an asteroid?

So you can learn a lot.

I mean, the big thing that you're going to be learning is, what is that asteroid made of?

And what it's made of can tell you a lot about the conditions that made it, and that, in turn, you know, can tell you, what were the conditions like way back when it was made?

So how was the solar system formed?

So you can work your way back from just the basic core minerals that this thing is made of towards information about how the solar system was formed.

That's pretty cool.

But how does this start-up, how does this company make what's on asteroids that we don't actually have here?

So the company, Deep Space Industries, I liken what they're doing a lot to cooking.

It's very much like cooking in the kitchen, except they're doing it on a kind of dirty, industrial scale.

And so how do they know what's in there?

Well, first of all, we have meteorites here on Earth.


And so you can look at the chemical composition, the mineralogical elements that are inside the meteorites that we found here on Earth, and you can make a pretty good guess as to what some of the asteroids out there will be comprised of.

So they get...

So you got the ingredients list...

Yeah, you got your ingredients, just like in cooking, and then what they do is they get a whole bunch of different minerals from different suppliers, and then they mix them up.

Sometimes they microwave them.

Sometimes they add this thing called sodium metasilicate, which is also known as water glass, which binds some of these minerals together so that you can create a waterless clay.

That's for asteroids that they want to simulate that aren't filled with water.

For the ones that they are filled with water, they just add water, stir and clump it together and then dry it out, and then they break it up into dust -- again, just like it would be on the surface of an asteroid.

Well, who wants to buy this stuff that this company is building?


So you'd be kind of surprised.

NASA is the biggest buyer, obviously.

They are most interested in what's going on on, you know, the surface of Mars for their rovers, the surface of the Moon, and other asteroids.

They want to know what's in them, and the reason why they want to know what's in them is because it costs a ton of money to get water and supplies and fuel up into space.

It's probably cheaper if you could just grab it from an asteroid out in space.

The European Space Agency is getting some of this asteroid simulant.

The Japanese Space Agency, there are plenty of space agencies that buy small quantities of this stuff so they can test their equipment on it.

And then there's also private space industries that want to become asteroid miners, and Deep Space Industries, actually, the one that are making these simulants, they want to do it too.

What are the risks associated with trying to get onto asteroids or mining asteroids or using them as part of our space ecosystem?

So, first of all, nobody has really done it, so there's...Right now, nobody knows what it's going to actually take to do this.

But you got to start someplace.

You got to start on the ground level, and for, you know, a lot of these companies, that means figuring out what these things are made of and testing their equipment.

So if you're hosting a party, and you really want to impress somebody, you want to cook whatever that is first, right?

Same thing for the space agencies.

Before they send $5 billion worth of equipment up into space to test something or to grab an asteroid, they want to test it here on Earth.

They want to make sure every tiny little component, the drill, the scanning equipment, all of that is absolutely fine-tuned, and you can't do that unless you have a little fake asteroid here on Earth to test it against.

Got it.

So the fake asteroid quests right now, do we hope that we're going to find... Is this the gold rush, so to speak?

Is there some mineral there that could be the most amazing thing?


It is a gold...

Is that why we're going there?

This is a future gold rush.

I think, in the next 20, 30 years, if you talk to people at NASA, you talk to people at these private space companies that are getting into this, asteroid mining is going to be a thing.

People...There's actually a new program in Colorado where you can get a degree in asteroid mining.

Because it costs so much to carry every single pound of fuel and water, to get that up into space, having that already up there is going to be invaluable.

So you can build your structure.

You can fuel your spacecraft.

You can provide oxygen to your astronauts.

All of this stuff is going to come, ideally, from space.

You don't have to take it, drag it up with you.

All right.

Luke Groskin, thanks so much.

Thank you.