Stefanie Tompkins

Transcript

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

Space is the edge, is the frontier in technology. And space being infinite, that means you have an infinite amount of opportunities in which to get involved with the most advanced technology with discoveries and with possibilities that, in my own opinion, no other field can match. My name is Angel Abbud-Madrid, and Im the director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines. 

The Conveyor: 

Youre listening to The Conveyor, the podcast that brings you the latest research, new discoveries and world changing ideas from Colorado School of Mines.   

The Conveyor: 

You mentioned space resources. Thats a very big and allencompassing term. What do you really mean when we talk about space resources? 

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

The very definition of a resource is an element of interest because it can be useful, it can be applied. And so anything outside Earth that can be useful to us because were going to use it either in space or in the future—we can bring it to Earth—is a resource. And here it is important to differentiate the different types of resources, because this is going to impact how are we’re going to utilize them. So there are resources that are very obvious that there are material resources that can be useful, such as metals and minerals, water, oxygen, all sorts of different material that can evaporate very quickly in different places in the solar system. But there are others that are intangible. A resource could be solar energy, and its an unlimited amount of resources that we have up there. Solar energy that can be used to power spacecraft but can also be beamed down to Earth and can give us an enormous amount of energy. 

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

Microgravity, ultrahigh vacuum on space stations are a resource, because they give us an environment in which we can manufacture goods that we cannot do on Earth and that we can utilize in space or to bring it here to Earth. There are resources that may not be very obvious, just location. The ability to look at Earth from up above is actually the very first resource that we started utilizing in space. It gave us communication satellites, and we use them for weather forecasting, we use it for global communications, we can use them to pinpoint every location of the Earth with extreme accuracy. We can even use them to monitor the health of our planet. And so just being outside Earth is a resource. The location on Mars and on the Moon for places where we can use as habitats or for covering equipment. Theres soil that you can find on the Moon or Mars, its a resource because it can be utilized for construction or for manufacturing. 

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

Think about anything outside that can be useful. In fact, there are humanmade resources—all this space debris and all the space trash that we have sent for 60 years is a big resource because we have spent already the money to send it up there. Why not recycle it? Why not use the titanium and aluminum, the chromium of any metal that you can use to… For structures or for making parts up in space. So again, all of that can be very useful. And the whole point is to avoid sending it from Earth. That is the main point to understand here, because it’s very energy intensive, it is very expensive to send things to space. Why not use whats already out there if we dont have to bring it from Earth? 

The Conveyor: 

Tell me about the research projects going on at Mines and the Center for Space Resources. 

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

The Center for Space Resources. We are conducting research on everything that is required to enable the identification, the collection, extraction and utilization of resources. We cover the whole sequence from identifying the resources. So we have faculty that are involved in identifying those from remote sensing, from satellites, but also from samples that have been brought from the Moon, for example, or that will be analyzed in the future. Were looking at how to drill, how to collect things by excavation systems, autonomy for using those types of things, robotics. Were looking at how to extract the oxygen, the water, the metals. Once you have the resources, what do you do with them? So theres things called a space construction—how to make habitats, space manufacturing, how do you make spare parts and tools? 

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

And were also looking at all the infrastructure that will be necessary to recover, to utilize resources, such as power, communications, transportation. Were even involved in economic studies. Does it really make sense to go after resources from asteroids, from the Moon, from space? We have also looking at policy issues. So as you can see, we have faculty from every department that is involved in making spare resources a reality, because we have done it for 150 years at School of Mines. Were just extrapolating this and trying to do it in space. 

The Conveyor: 

Yeah. Where else to go but up? So then what are the challenges? 

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

The main challenges are not necessarily the technologies to collect or to extract the resources. We have plenty of experience here on Earth, and Earth is just another planet. And were trying to do this in some other places. The challenge has come on doing those things that we have done on Earth but in a completely different environment. The reason why we have been successful on resources on Earth is because were used to building our equipment under the gravity that we have here on Earth, the temperature that we have here on Earth, the atmospheric pressure, we are used to doing this with lots of labor. Thats why we have so much going on around it with lots of power, but all of these things are going to be different in space. Youre going to be dealing with a completely gravitational environment. One sixth, the gravity on the Moon, one third on Mars that we have here on Earth, were going to be dealing with extreme temperatures, very cold, very hot, were going to be doing this in a vacuum. 

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

And if that happens, you can forget about your lubricants that you have here on Earth, because things were going to evaporate very quickly. Youre doing this under places where theres radiation from the sun and cosmic radiation that you have to protect. Youre now dealing with a lunar material and then a dust, for example, that is extremely abrasive. Its very different from the one here on Earth—it has never seen any humidity. So youre trying to adapt to a completely different environment and using the same techniques that you use here on Earth. So thats why our laboratories are full of equipment that are trying to replicate this. 

The Conveyor: 

How exactly? Where do you even begin? 

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

We start with trying to simulate the lunar soil. We have learned from what we brought from the Apollo program. And so we are creating those type of simulants, as we call it, from the material that we have on the Moon, but that we can pick from here on Earth and try to make the material as similar as possible so that you can start doing the work that may be used once youre on the lunar surface. We have large and small vacuum chambers in which we can replicate a complete vacuum or an any pressure that you want. Like the one on Mars, we have a test base where we can use to have robotic equipment moving around so that it can get used to moving around craters and rocks. And so we try to replicate as much as possible what you will find in space.  

The Conveyor: 

All right. Whats the biggest challenge when replicating space in a lab?  

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

One of the most difficult things is gravity, because theres not a switch in the laboratory that you can turn off and all of a sudden gravity is gone. So what we do is that we use drop towers. We use parabolic Earth craft where you can use the space station to put to the test, that equipment that were going to have on the Moon, on Mars, on asteroids and try to replicate that. So again, the challenge is about adapting to a total different environment. 

The Conveyor: 

Youve mentioned a lot of things going on in terms of space resources. What should we expect to see in the near future? 

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

Interestingly enough, we shouldnt expect that long to see things happening in space resources. The very first experiment that will extract a resource from another planetary body is onboard the Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars. And that experiment will extract oxygen from the carbon dioxide atmosphere of Mars, for the first time having a resource that can be stored there, and we can use it for humans to breathe or as a propellant or as element that can be used for chemical processes. 

The Conveyor: 

What about five years from now? 

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

In the next five years or so, youre going to start seeing several missions going to the Moon—and not just from space agencies, by companies—are going to be on the surface of the Moon, identifying the resources and starting to develop technology demonstrations so that in the next 15 years or so, now you can have a largescale operation. And now you can start really extracting the resources so that you can have a settlement there in which a crew of five to 10 astronauts can have oxygen to breathe, can have water to drink or to protect them against radiation or to use for growing plants or for making habitats and things of this nature. 

The Conveyor: 

All right, big question. Where will we be 20 years from now? 

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

Anybody that you ask whats going to happen 20 years from now, I think they will be lying to you, because its really impossible to tell what all this activity is going to do. So beyond 20 years, its everybodys guess. But the only thing I can say is that resources will be a very important part of this next phase of space. 

The Conveyor: 

Thats fair, too much can happen between now and then. 

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

Correct.  

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

Let me leave you with one last thing that I think it is important for students to be aware of. I went through all of the different resources that are out there that are important—there’s oxygen and water and metals and minerals and solar energy. But I think it is important for students and for the audience in general, to learn about another very important resource. And that is inspiration. This is an intangible resource that has driven humanity from the very first time that humans started looking at birds flying or at the dark skies, and that inspired them to do many of the things that we do. In fact, many of the technologies that we have is just because humanity has been excited and has been inspired about doing things that will get them to see their world from up above. And that has given us the ability to fly airplanes, to have spacecraft and to have all sorts of probes going to the edge of the solar system and beyond.  

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

And whats important is that this has been with us for thousands of years. So you can think about space and say, renewable resource. This thing has been going on and will keep going on. And I think we should better use this resource wisely and use the inspiration that space can bring us to push students to study exciting fields, to get exposed to knowledge that will help them have a very satisfying career that is not going to stop with them. Theyre going to have to then leave whatever they were able to discover and to be involved to the next generation and the next and the next and thousands of generations after that. Because, like I said, the space is infinite, and its a renewable resource and will keep us going for many thousands of years. 

Angel Abbud-Madrid: 

Thanks for listening to The Conveyor. To learn more about how Colorado School of Mines is solving some of the worlds biggest engineering and scientific challenges, visit mines.edu. And then join us back here for our next episode. 

This episode of The Conveyor was produced by Ashley Spurgeon and was hosted and edited by Dannon Cox. 

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About the Podcast

The Conveyor brings listeners insights into the latest research, new discoveries and world-changing ideas from Colorado School of Mines.

The viewpoints and opinions expressed by featured guests do not necessarily represent those of Colorado School of Mines.