Creating space dirt

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Space engineers who need to simulate the surface of planets, moons, and asteroids in order to test their rovers, drills, and landers for future missions are demanding better alien dirt.

James Carpenter just needed some fake Moon dirt. Carpenter, a lunar-exploration expert at the European Space Agency (ESA) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, works on a drill designed to hunt for buried ice on the Moon. His team recently ordered half a tonne of powdery material to replicate the lunar surface from a commercial supplier in the United States. But what showed up was not what the team was expecting. “The physical properties were visibly different,” says Carpenter.

His experience underscores a longstanding problem with artificial space soils, known as simulants: how to make them consistently and reliably. But now there is a fresh effort to bring the field into line. Last month, NASA established a team of scientists from eight of its research centres to analyse the physical properties and availability of existing simulants. And, for the first time, an asteroid-mining company in Florida is making scientifically accurate powders meant to represent the surfaces of four classes of asteroid. It delivered its second batch to NASA on 28 June.

The article is worth reading in its entirety, as it describes an engineering problem that I am sure most space geeks, including myself, never thought even existed.



  • pzatchok

    I sort if always knew it was a problem.

    Logically we can only guess at asteroid composition because we have not sampled any yet. Remotely yes but not physically.

    Add in the micro-gravity if each different body and things could get real problematic.

    How would you anchor to or drill into and mine a ball of sand?
    Plus what are you going to be mining that cannot be found on Earth cheaper?
    Low gravity space resources are best left to low gravity space colonists.

    The best thing about this is that space mining company is finding and using a new industry and way to finance itself.
    “And, for the first time, an asteroid-mining company in Florida is making scientifically accurate powders meant to represent the surfaces of four classes of asteroid.”
    Scale up that production and take over the worldwide market.

  • Orion314

    I can guess that many spin-off technologies will spawn for what ever company can solve the electrostatic dust attraction problem. The problem does seem formidable… The only one I’ve read so far that would really work is paving the lunar surface with mooncrete. No dust, no dust problem.

  • ken anthony

    The solution to dust is people. I have a housekeeper for that!

    No simulant will be the same as the real deal. A human on site can solve in a week a problem that might never get solved with robots. That time loss has to be factored into costs.

  • LocalFluff

    I’ve heard they use different simulants for different purposes. One for wheel traction and another for sealing off blowing Mars dust. Each a good simulant with respect to some of the regolith’s properties.

    pzatchok, quick comments:
    – The Lunar surface consists out of asteroid dust, so they have an idea.
    – A rocket engine could push a drilling spacecraft down, although that attempt failed for Philae. This is a serious unsolved engineering problem. Hayabusa 2 and OsirisREX will soon find out alot about this and bring home samples.
    – Agree that mining in space for usage in space is what could work economically. Mining asteroid resources competes with the launch cost from Earth per pound, not the value per pound. We have 800,000,000,000 tons of Earth with all elements right here under our feet. PER PERSON! No space mining import is of interest since we have an infinite supply of resources of all kinds locally.

  • ken anthony

    A rocket engine could push a drilling spacecraft down

    But it’s a really stupid idea. A kinetic rod with the right impact will anchor itself in anything but liquid. An anchored drill or auger does the rest.

    A rocket engine doesn’t have the duration to do an efficient job. It also changes the vector of the target even if just a minor amount. An anchored machine doesn’t once it’s anchored after the initial impact.

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