Asteroid Simulants

Now Commercially Available

Available Asteroid Simulants

Multiple asteroid simulants type are now available, following shipment of initial quantities to NASA under a research grant to Deep Space Industries and the University of Central Florida.  Additional asteroid types – or simulants for Mars and the Moon – are possible based on new requirements from NASA or the research community.  Deep Space Industries has purchased a surplus of source minerals, beyond that funded by the grant, so that it can supply asteroid simulants to individual researchers in addition to NASA’s requirements.

The organic portion of the simulants is provided by sub-bituminous coal.  Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons would be a more realistic source for the kerogens found in asteroids, but most species of PAHs are either toxic or carcinogenic or both.  DSI simulants contain no hazardous minerals.  However, DSI can supply the constituent powders for any of its simulants minus the sub-bituminous coal, and researchers can add whatever kerogen-simulant they prefer to achieve higher realism.

CI type – High Volatile Content

Orgueil-type CI Carbonaceous Chondrites are the type meteorite representing volatile-rich, very friable (weak) primitive asteroid material. These meteorites are thought to be the likely analogs to the P and D spectral types. They are of particular exploration interest as a potential source for water and carbon compounds, shielding material, and as a scientific window on the more primitive materials of the solar nebula. One of the advantages of this meteorite type is its texture consists of all “matrix”, that is fine-grained material that is very easy to replicate in the simulant mixture. Its low strength is also easy to replicate by the methods DSI has developed during its prototyping phase.  Because of the volatile rich nature of this material, the analog is in demand for use in developing ISRU hardware. Available now, download spec sheet here.

CM type – Moderate to High Volatile Content

Like the CI-type carbonaceous chondrites, the CMs are dominated by clays. The major difference is the predominance of iron rich serpentine polymorph cronstedtite.  This meteorite is thought to be a likely analog for B, G, and wet-C asteroid types.  Again, CM materials are of particular exploration interest as a potential source for water and carbon compounds, shielding material, ISRU development, and as a scientific window on another aspect of the more primitive materials of the solar nebula. This will likely be a high-demand item since the volatile content of both CI and CM type asteroid parent bodies make them attractive targets for ISRU development. Available February 2018.

CR type –Low Volatile Content

One of the potential target asteroids for NASA’s now-cancelled Asteroid Redirect Mission was the NEA 2008 EV5, potentially a CR carbonaceous chondrite. CRs are a relative new grouping of carbonaceous chondrites. Note that meteorites do not always fall into neat classifications and there are a large number of “unclassified” meteorites that are different enough to be excluded from current groupings, but not numerous enough to merit defining a new group.  CRs are less “primitive” than CMs and CIs, have lower clay contents and thus lower volatile contents, more FeNi free metal, and have more mafic silicates. As such they seem to represent an intermediate group in the spectrum of volatile rich to volatile poor carbonaceous chondrites. The most pristine CR falls are also the most anomalous members of this group (and may not really belong in the group). DSI will use a collection of five low-to-moderate weathering Antarctic finds that have mineralogies roughly average for the overall group as our guide for the CR recipe. Available now, download spec sheet here.

C2 Type – High Volatile Content

Another possible variant on high volatile content asteroid targets are the Tagish Lake-type C2 Carbonaceous Chondrites.  Like the CIs this meteorite is extremely volatile rich, primitive, and samples areas of the solar nebula outside the frost line. However, this material sampled a different mixture of source materials than the CIs.  It is more olivine and magnetite rich while being a little depleted in serpentine relative to CIs. We believe that it is important to have this volatile-rich variant as part of our portfolio of simulants to cover the range of volatile-rich mineralogies that may be important to exploration and ISRU objectives. Available October 2017.

Asteroid Simulant Process

Asteroid Simulant Pricing

The minimum order is 10 kg, and for all orders the cost of shipping to a customer location is extra, based on the method of shipping chosen by the customer. The pricing below is for CI and C2 simulants only. For pricing on CR and CM, please contact our R&D team.

For orders of 10 kg:

  • 10 kg (powder) – $250
  • 10 kg (regolith) – $300

For orders of 12 to 99 kg:

  • $22 per kg (powder)
  • $27 per kg (regolith)

For orders of 100 kg or more:

  • $19.90 per kg (powder)
  • $24.50 per kg (regolith)

Standardized Reference Samples

Conduct your experiments with the same material NASA uses

NASA is receiving five tonnes of several asteroid simulant types from Deep Space Industries under a Phase II grant funded by the Small Business Innovation Research program.  The grant’s goal is to establish high-fidelity standardized reference simulants that enable researchers to carry out repeatable experiments.

 

An asteroid mining company needs to experiment with its planned technologies for harvesting resources, but very few meteorites land on Earth that resemble the volatiles-bearing asteroids that will be sought by initial missions.  Deep Space Industries is solving that problem at its Orlando R&D facility by producing asteroid simulants that have the expected properties of its initial targets.  The simulants are available to any asteroid researcher in amounts from 10 kilograms to multiple tonnes.

NASA will receive five tonnes of several asteroid simulant types from Deep Space Industries under a Phase II grant funded by the Small Business Innovation Research program.  The shipments will continue into early 2018.  The grant’s goal is to establish standardized reference simulants that enable researchers to carry out repeatable experiments (i.e., one scientist’s work can be verified by another researcher if the simulants are uniform.)  Before DSI began developing standardized simulants, the field’s researchers relied on ad-hoc recipes ranging from glass beads to mixtures of sand plus iron grains to floral foam, among many other variations.

The DSI process begins by finding reliable sources for about two dozen minerals that can be combined in various ways to resemble the composition of different asteroid types.  R&D Director Stephen D. Covey has negotiated supply agreements in some cases directly with mine supervisors to acquire minerals with known qualities, gaining waivers from the mines’ standard practice of only shipping in trainload quantities.  Some suppliers had to be dropped for claiming to offer a particular mineral but instead shipping rocks only coated in that mineral.  Other suppliers were found to heat-treat mined minerals, removing the natural water of hydration needed for realism, and in some cases heat-treating also changed the chemistry.

The next step in creating standardized simulants is to grind each type of rock into powder, so that it later can be combined with other powders in precise ratios to create different simulant types.  For incoming minerals that come in the form of large rocks, a crusher breaks them into pebble size.  Then grinding machines take over; these are rotating chambers filled with ball bearings that gradually pulverize the rocks over several hours or a few days.  To protect the DSI staff from dust generated by these processes, both steps take place inside a shed that is sealed during operation.  High-capacity air cleaners inside the shed also work to continuously filter the shed’s air.

To create simulants of various types, selected powdered minerals are combined in specific ratios and placed in small cement mixers to ensure consistency.  The results plus water go into large restaurant-sized mixers to ensure the sludge-like material is thoroughly mixed (it’s generally too stiff for manual mixing). 

Simulant powders are mixed with an excess of water in order to bind all the minerals together effectively.  Then the results are shaped and placed into a vacuum oven to slowly and precisely reduce the water content down to the level expected in actual asteroid regolith, as the simulant is turned into a solid rock. Raw mixed powders are available allowing a researcher to create solid surfaces of any size and shape, consistent with the required final processing steps (instructions provided). After DSI completes lithification into slabs, cobble, or gravel, the pieces are optionally fragmented using high-speed impacts resulting in a power-law distribution of particle sizes expected to be encountered on asteroid surfaces.

 

Expertise from the University of Central Florida

The formulas for the mixtures are part of the two-year research project, which is being conducted in collaboration with the University of Central Florida and its asteroid experts, such as Dr. Dan Britt and Dr. Phil Metzger.  Dr. Britt is the principal investigator for the  Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science, funded by NASA’s Solar System Exploration Virtual Institute.

 

Simulants for Mars, Phobos and the Moon

The experts at Deep Space Industries and the University of Central Florida are considering the production of additional extraterrestrial simulant types, in response to global interest in our rigorous standardized approach to simulant design and production.  Potential locations include multiple Mars sites, Phobos and the Moon.  Contact the R&D team if you are interested in simulants for these areas.

The Meaning of “High Fidelity” for Simulants

Some simulant producers select a location on Earth – a lava field or a spot in the Mojave desert – and quarry rock and sand there that is somewhat similar to a specific lunar, asteroid, or Martian regolith (soil).  The extracted rock may be the “right color” or contain a primary mineral that resembles a primary mineral in an extraterrestrial regolith.

Deep Space Industries takes a more exacting approach.  Our experts and those of the University of Central Florida select a suite of terrestrial minerals from typically six to ten different mine and laboratory sources.  These are ground into powders, so that precise amounts of each source mineral can be mixed into a paste.  The company developed a process to ensure the paste solidifies into a “custom rock,” and we have verified that it achieves hardness levels comparable to actual meteorites.  Then the custom rock is broken apart into the dust, sand and pebbles needed by the particular asteroid regolith simulant.

The closeness that a simulant matches its target can be measured by Figures of Merit (FoMs) that are generated using techniques developed by NASA.  FoMs can describe the match in grain size distributions, the distribution of elements, the distribution of minerals, and more.  On mineral match, our initial simulant for CI asteroids has a FoM of 0.83.  This compares to the highest scoring available lunar simulant, NU-LHT-2M, with a mineral score of 0.55.  The more widely known JSC-1A lunar simulant has a mineral FoM score of only 0.35.

Source:  P. Metzger, D. Britt, S. Covey, and J.S. Lewis, “Figure of Merit for Asteroid Regolith Simulants,” European Planetary Science Congress 2017, Riga, Latvia , 17–22 September 2017.

 

NASA Used DSI/UCF Simulants on the International Space Station

One of the puzzles about asteroids is their internal structure.  Gravity is very low, and each asteroid gets buffeted by occasional meteorite impacts as well as shifts caused by thermal expansion and contraction as it rotates in brilliant sunlight.  Are asteroids generally loose rubble piles or does this buffeting lead to gradual compaction into an increasingly solid body?  NASA scientist Paul A. Abell envisioned an experiment to test the behavior of asteroid regolith by installing simulant samples on the International Space Station. He and a team at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) worked with Dr. Addie Dove and a team at the University of Central Florida (UCF) to build the hardware to make the experiment a reality.

Asteroid simulant developed by Deep Space Industries and UCF was loaded into a plexiglass tube, sorted by particle size.  On ISS, clamps keeping the simulant packed solid were loosened and cameras recorded how the regolith particles began to move around the tube.  In addition, brightly colored rocks of several sizes filled another tube, for easier tracking of movements.  Microgravity on ISS is not perfect, and so the simulant was lightly jarred as astronauts used their exercise equipment, supply ships docked and undocked, etc. – similar to the buffeting expected to occur on an asteroid.

In the left photo below, the colored rocks and DSI/UCF simulant are shown in their experiment tubes (each about eight inches tall).  The middle photo shows the Strata-1 experiment package installed on the ISS (see center top to the left of the yellowish box).  The right photo below shows Dr. Dove in a lab at UCF explaining the Strata-1 experiment to Dr. Hideaki Miyamoto, professor at the University of Tokyo, who is planning a sample return mission to the Martian moon Phobos.

Contact our Simulants Team

DSI’s R&D team is happy to answer any questions you may have about our available Simulants, or discuss any custom needs you may have.

Please submit the form below and we’ll get back to you quickly.

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