“I make asteroid dirt for a living,” Stephen Covey says gleefully. Covey, the director of research and development at Deep Space Industries, is surrounded by industrial mixers, large buckets of materials, and kitchen microwaves inside the startup’s warehouse. One of DSI’s products is simulated asteroid dirt, also known as regolith, to sell to space agencies so that probes landing or excavating on asteroids can be properly tested.
The startup comes at a booming time for asteroid exploration. There are more missions to asteroids, and some are even bringing samples back to Earth—but not without risks. One of these attempts, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s first Asteroid Explorer Hayabusa, was waylaid by a failed sampling mechanism and only able to bring back less than a milligram of asteroid dust (which was partially contaminated by the spacecraft). Valuable data was still gleaned, but how can a space agency test a collection probe and foresee problems without having actual bits of asteroid to experiment with?
[How did different species of spiders end up on the Hawaiian islands? One theory: Silk “balloons.”]
That’s where DSI comes in. As Covey says, “If they had had good simulants to try against, then maybe their sampling mechanism would’ve been designed a little bit differently and would’ve succeeded.”
The asteroids DSI simulates are often the ones that are most likely to contain water, among other things. “We’re making asteroid simulants of the asteroids which we believe are the most valuable,” says Covey. “If you take water and CO2, you can make rocket fuel.” Other materials found in asteroids could be used to make methane, plastics, and even build structures—many things a budding human space colony would find useful.
The startup does this by studying the next best thing to visiting an asteroid—studying the meteorites that have fallen to Earth. While they’re not exactly like asteroids you’d find in space, they can give chemists a good idea of what ingredients are necessary to make an asteroid simulant. Space agencies can buy DSI’s simulants in cheaper, larger quantities than buying actual meteorites themselves.
One day, Covey hopes that DSI’s work will make space mining a reality: ”We are confident that it’s the wave of the future.”
Produced by Luke Groskin
Music by Audio Network
Videography and Production Assistance by Brook Eschenroeder
Additional Videos, Stills and Animations by Shutterstock, Brandon Swanson,
Deep Space Industries, Brian Versteeg, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
Kennedy Space Flight Center, Goddard Space Flight, Johnson Space Center,
Resource Prospector Mission, JAXA Hayabusa Mission, European Space Agency
Special Thanks to Philip Metzger, Danielle Dana, and Ariel Zych
Meet the Producers and Host
About Luke Groskin@lgroskin
Luke Groskin is Science Friday’s video producer. He’s on a mission to make you love spiders and other odd creatures.
About D Peterschmidt@dpeterschmidt
D Peterschmidt is a producer, host of the podcast Universe of Art, and composes music for Science Friday’s podcasts. Their D&D character is a clumsy bard named Chip Chap Chopman.