SciTech Now Episode 519

In this episode of SciTech Now, a tech startup creates asteroid dirt; a wearable technology that could help those with limited mobility; and a space for Girls to learn to code



Coming up, cooking asteroids...

We can make asteroids that are as soft as charcoal or as hard as concrete.

...wearable robots...

Our soft exosuits are kind of wearable robotic devices that are made of soft and compliant materials.

...girls that code.

Knowing how to code is a huge asset, so we're focusing on teaching them the skills that they can use to succeed in college and beyond.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology and innovation.

Let's get started.

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. 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.

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.


Touchdown confirmed.

[ Cheering ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Vibrations ] [ Vibrations ] [ Vibrations ] [ Vibrations ] [ Vibrations ] ♪♪ ♪♪

Many of us grew up watching our favorite superheros don more than just capes.

Technologically advanced supersuits enhanced these superheros' abilities like in Marvel's Black Panther or DC Comic's The Flash.

What would it take to make those suits part of our reality?

A team of roboticists, engineers, biochemical experts and apparel designers have teamed up to make a light, functional exosuit.

This wearable technology could help firefighters, military and those with limited mobility traverse difficult terrain.

Joining me now via Google Hangout is Sangjun Lee, a mechanical engineer and graduate student at Harvard and coauthor of the study.

This is the stuff of science fiction.

This is... Are you in this field because you wanted to build some cool Iron Man outfit?

Oh, yeah.

I really like the superhero movies.

Yeah, probably that's why I kind of dreamed about this type of thing.

And so, you know, where... Let's move away from kind of superhero to ordinary humans.

How are exosuits going to impact our lives?

Conventional widget-type exoskeletons are probably hard to be in the real world because they are really bulky and really large and hard to control in the real-world situations, so, as you can imagine by its name, our soft exosuits are kind of wearable robotic devices that are made of soft and compliant materials, so, simply speaking, just like the superhero suits, people can wear these type of devices, and then the suits can provide physical assistance to the wearer while the wearer is moving.


So give me examples of types of physical assistance.

I mean, we have one video of someone who is walking on a treadmill, and what's happening to their hips?

Oh, so there are multiple different versions of the soft exosuit that we've been developing in the lab.

So, depending on the version, but basically the exosuit is helping the wearer while the wearer is walking.

So when they are pushing off the ground, the exosuit is helping the ankle joint to push off better, and also while they're moving their body center of mass forward, the exosuit is helping the hip joint to help their, like, to help to push their body forward more easily.

So this is essentially making our own walk more efficient and adding a little bit of strength to it because we're not wasting energy doing the stuff that we're doing inefficiently, right?

So could you imagine, then, something that is helping our frame, say, carry more material on our backs?

This is one of the Army-funded projects.

So we envision the Army's soldiers can carry heavy loads with this type of exosuit more easily and kind of further with a given amount of energy.

So in one of our recent testing... So last year, with the latest version of the exosuit, we spent more than 4 weeks with a group of actual infantry soldiers at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground.

So researchers there at Army Research Lab set up a really vigorous 12-mile cross-country course for the soldiers to hike with and without our exosuits and took a number of biomechanical and physiological measurements, including how much the metabolic energy they spent, and, finally, their testing showed that wearing the exosuit makes it easier to walk even in really highly constrained environment like this.

So what kind of efficiency are we talking about?

How much easier was it for a soldier to walk with the exosuit on, or how much... Maybe not easier, but how much less energy did they spend than when somebody did not have the suit on?

So in one of the recent work that we recently published in the paper, in that paper, so, as you can imagine, when a wearer wear this type of suit or this type of device, due to the weight or mass of the system, probably they will slightly increase their metabolic energy to walk.

So with one of our recent version of the exosuit, actually the energy cost of walking initially slightly increased by about 7 to 10 percent.

Because they were carrying the weight of the exosuit.

Actually, when the system is off, when the wearers are just carrying the weight of the system.

But when the system is turned on and the actuation is going on to the subject, actually they decreased their metabolic energy by 25-ish percent, which means the exosuit take the amount of energy that they actually increase by its own weight and further make the energy cost further down compared -- further down by 15 percent even compared with their natural walking without any exosuit.

The soldiers wearing these exosuits, they were spending 15 percent less energy even accounting for the weight of the suit that they were carrying at rest.

Exactly, yeah.

Are there workers, say, at a warehouse or an assembly line that might wear these things to be able to do different tasks without injuring their backs?

We are kind of expanding the application of the exosuit further down to other applications like medical application or the industrial application that you just mentioned.

So, for example, rescue workers or firefighters can use this type of similar system to help carry their gear up apartment stairs or out into the woods to fight a fire more easily, and we are also developing a version of exosuit that helps or kind of protects their back joints for the, like, assembly line workers or logistics workers so that the suit can prevent the back injuries for those type of workers.

How far away is this technology from being deployed in the real world?

We are already kind of starting to bring in this type of device into the real world.

So, for example, for the medical application exosuit, we have already kind of started to make a kind of commercial version of this, so we have partnered with a robotics company, and we are going through clinical trials to bring this type of medical-focused device to the market.

So give me an example.

When you say you've partnered with a robotics company in the medical application space, how is an exosuit going to help a patient?

What are they recovering from, or what would they need it for?

The exosuit has been developed for stroke survivors.

We measure the movement of the legs, both for the healthy side, for affected side, and help the affected side using the pattern of the unaffected side leg.

So how far away from having superstrength or superspeed with one of these suits?

We reason that, in the near future, this type of device can be in the real world to help people with disability or people that need more power, more strength to walk or for their work.

All right.

Sangjun Lee of Harvard, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

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An organization in Austin, Texas, is providing a space for girls to learn how to code.

Code Girls is teaching skills needed for a future in tech.

This segment is part of American Graduate: Getting to Work, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

For many jobs in the tech industry, especially coding, the majority of the employees are men.

In 1994, 37 percent of computer science majors in the US were women.

Today, that figure is just 18 percent.

One club in Austin, Texas, is looking to raise those numbers.

Code Girls, a similar organization to Girls Who Code, is providing a space for young girls to learn how to code in an environment they won't feel alienated or unaccepted.

Code Girls' president, Varshinee Sreekanth, describes her experience.

I have been in Code Girls for the last 4 years, since my freshman year, because that is when the club was formed.

I joined because I had just taken AP computer science, and I wanted, you know, new experiences in computer science, and then I walked into the computer science club, and it's all guys, and that was really my first exposure to the issue of the lack of girls and women in computer science and engineering in general.

It's a big issue.

It's everywhere at this point, but there's still a disproportionate amount, so Code Girls, Girls Who Code at the time, was created to combat that issue, and I really liked the message of it.

I thought it was a great idea, and I joined, and I stayed through these last 4 years because I still believe in the message.

I did not have anything similar to Girls Who Code or Code Girls when I was growing up.

My first experience with coding was in college.

I took a C++ coding course, and I was one of the only women in the class, but it was a great opportunity for me to learn about coding firsthand and to actually learn how to create something.

I hope to see the gap demolished, you know?

I hope that we don't have to have this conversation about women in coding, and it's just people in coding, and that we're just doing the work and accomplishing great things.

We're trying to give them these basic skills, specifically as well as some other skills like communication, creating a community, especially this community of girls, as well as PhotoShop skills, design skills that will all be an asset to them in the workforce.

Remember the numbers, it goes to 9, A, B, C, D, E, F, which F is 15.

It's just so essential these days.

No matter where you go, knowing how to code is a huge asset, so we're focusing on, you know, fostering these girls and teaching them the skills that they can use to succeed in college and beyond.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪