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Small sample, big potential

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WORLD Radio - Small sample, big potential

The OSIRIS-REx Mission returns to earth with asteroid minerals


NASA Astromaterials Curator Francis McCubbin, NASA Sample Return Capsule Science Lead Scott Sandford and University of Arizona Osiris-Rex Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta, collect data next to the sample return capsule from NASA's Osiris-Rex mission. Associated Press/Photo by Keegan Barber/NASA

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Digging in space dirt.

In 2025, NASA plans to return human beings to the moon. The agency touts the Artemis missions as just one step toward a long-term presence on the Moon and, eventually, Mars.

NICK EICHER, HOST: In the meantime, government agencies and private companies are working to lay the groundwork for easier space travel for the amateur astronaut and more profit for the rocket maker. Last month, NASA and Lockheed Martin celebrated a first in U.S. space exploration - the return of a mineral sample from an asteroid called Bennu.

Why did the mission draw the attention of mining entrepreneurs? WORLD correspondent Bonnie Pritchett has the story.

NASA AUDIO: We have touch down. I repeat. SRC has touched down. And touchdown of the OSIRIS-REx return capsule.

REPORTER, BONNIE PRITCHETT: On September 24, the spacecraft OSIRIS-REx delivered its asteroid sample to Earth. The seven year and four-billion- mile journey ended in the Utah desert to cheers from Lockheed-Martin flight controllers.

AUDIO: [Cheers]

NASA flew the sample to Houston’s Johnson Space Center for study and curation. Stephanie Getty, explains the process. She’s director of the Solar System Exploration division at Goddard Space Flight Center.

STEPHANIE GETTY: So, from there, about a quarter of the sample will be distributed for analysis by current team members. Three quarters of the sample will be archived and preserved for future generations by techniques that may not have ever even been invented yet.

So, how big is the sample to begin with?

GETTY: So, we expect the sample to be about an amount that would fill a coffee cup.

That may seem insignificant compared to the time and effort required to collect it. But that coffee cup holds a wealth of information – not just about Earth’s history but humanity’s future in space.

JIM KERAVALA: If we wanted to build civilization, out into the solar system, and then eventually into the stars, we need mining, construction, manufacturing capabilities. We need agriculture.

That’s Jim Keravala, CEO of OffWorld. The Pasadena, California-based company is creating a series of autonomous mining robots for deployment on Earth – and off.

As it turns out, asteroids are chock full of metals in rare supply on Earth – like titanium, silica, lithium, iron, nickel, and cobalt.

About 10 years ago, entrepreneurs poured millions of dollars into the out-of-this-world business prospect. They would replenish Earth’s resources while safeguarding our environment from future mining.

But the potential return on investment was so far in the future that few customers or investors were willing to stake a claim. So, many asteroid mining ventures didn’t pan out.

Keravala admits he was among those prospectors.

KERAVALA: Space entrepreneurs can be their own worst enemy. And it's very tempting to test the premise of can you make that leap in a single bound. And I tested that premise several times.

Then a rocket scientist presented another option. George Sowers [SOURS] is professor of Space Resources at Colorado School of Mines.

In 2016 he was chief scientist at United Launch Alliance, an aerospace contractor that builds and launches rockets.

GEORGE SOWERS: So, we were looking at refuelable upper stages for our rockets. And you really get dramatic improvement if you can find fuel in space.

He proposed the idea during the 2016 Space Resources Roundtable, an annual meeting hosted by Colorado School of Mines.

SOWERS: And I stood up in the front of the room and said, “I don't know anything about space mining, but I'm here to buy propellants. I want to buy propellant in space to refuel my vehicles.”

What fuels rockets?

SOWERS: So, if you have water and you can extract it and process it, you can create rocket propellant.

Its components, hydrogen and oxygen, make rocket fuel. And frozen water has been found in the surface materials and craters on asteroids, the Moon, and Mars. Mining and processing water to refuel ships in space would dramatically reduce the cost of space exploration and the extraction of other valuable minerals that can be used on Earth…or for human habitats on the Moon.

Suddenly, the prospectors had a customer. Well, a potential customer.

KERAVALA: But today the customers really don’t exist. They don't exist, because nobody's putting down on the table a dollar for an amount of propellant in space. There's a lot of prospective markets…

Keravala has tapped into those markets, signing developmental contracts with earthly mining companies and the European Space Agency and the Luxembourg Space Agency. But he says the market for in-space propellant is still at least 10 years away…and Sowers agrees. He also points out that a more immediate question needs to be answered.

SOWERS: And the riskiest part of it is, how do we know there's really enough water there to make money?

Efforts are underway to quantify the amount of water ice on the moon. But, Sowers argues NASA could expedite the process.

SOWERS: Maybe put out a public private partnership type of a program, like they did with commercial cargo and commercial crew to the station. Similar type program, I think would could easily work for, for propellant production.

For Keravala, mining in space isn’t just a business proposition. It’s about giving humans a future in exploring and settling space. The challenges to long-term human life in space are real, but Keravala says defying those challenges is part of what makes us human.

KERAVALA: And our human nature is one of growth, freedom of thought, aspiration, joy, and looking to the future with hope and aspiration, and excitement. That's what drives us.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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