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UCF Researcher Uncovers Challenges Mining Asteroids

433 Eros is a stony asteroid in a near-Earth orbit. Photo: NASA
433 Eros is a stony asteroid in a near-Earth orbit. Photo: NASA

A University of Central Florida researcher wants to find out how dust particles behave in the weightlessness of micro-gravity. Findings will help design what to wear while exploring asteroids.

Researcher Josh Colwell’s experiment is getting a ride on the Vomit-comet – a plane that simulates micro-gravity environments.

He says clouds of dust on an asteroid behave differently than dust and dirt do on earth, and he hopes his experiment sheds some light on that behavior.

Using particles similar to the dust and dirt on an asteroid, Colwell wants to observe how they behave in micro-gravity.

“What we’re hoping to find are the conditions under which you can interact with a dusty surface safely and not create a big hazard. We can perhaps give NASA some guidance in terms of operating procedures,” said Colwell.

There’s a lot of interest in mining asteroids for minerals like platinum. So Colwell hopes his findings will help design space suits and tools for future asteroid explorers.

“The interest in this, from NASA, is trying to understand what kind of environments astronauts and spacecraft will encounter when we’re visiting these small asteroids in the future,” said Colwell

The vomit-comet gives Colwell about 20-seconds of micro-gravity to run the experiment, and takes off later next year.

Colwell’s experiment takes flight next year with the help of a $140,000 grant from NASA.

Brendan Byrne is Central Florida Public Media's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing the organization's internship program. Byrne also hosts Central Florida Public Media's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration, and the weekly news roundup podcast "The Wrap."