The evolution of technologies for in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) – the exploitation of resources found in a surrounding environment – is of great interest to NASA. The capability to convert materials found in space into usable supplies like fuel, oxidizer for fuel, water, air, building materials, and even spare parts would require fewer materials to be brought from Earth.

Deep Space Industries is aiding the agency in these endeavors by developing ‘space dirt’ – asteroid simulants – to advance extraterrestrial excavation and mining processes. The Mountain View, California-based company recently delivered to NASA Kennedy Space Center 3.5 gallons of material simulating that found on an asteroid or moon.Containers of asteroid simulant are stacked up and ready for delivery to NASA. (Source: Deep Space Industries)Containers of asteroid simulant are stacked up and ready for delivery to NASA. (Source: Deep Space Industries)

After analyzing the mineral composition of meteorites, company researchers identified rocks with similar content on Earth and milled them into powders. These materials were mixed in proper proportions to simulate the mineral composition of particular types of asteroids. Deep Space Industries also worked with University of Central Florida scientists to test and verify the physical properties of the simulants they created.

Several tons of five types of asteroid regolith simulants will be produced for NASA, universities, and the space mining industry to use for ground testing of technologies. Planetary scientists and engineers at NASA will use these simulants to design and develop space technologies for future space exploration missions in which local resources can be used instead of transporting resources from Earth.

Applications that may benefit from using high-fidelity regolith simulants to test future space technologies include: excavation technologies; sample collection for resource prospecting; granular material handling in microgravity; thermal processing of regolith to extract volatiles like water and carbon dioxide; chemical processing of regolith to extract metals for 3-D printing of parts, oxygen for life support and other materials; and space suit development. The simulants may even help NASA to study potential health effects of asteroid dust particles.

The group of companies participating in ISRU technology development is small, but growing. United Launch Alliance recently announced long-term planning that includes the incorporation of ISRU-derived fuels for its advanced cryogenic evolved stage booster concept.