March 5 (UPI) -- Scientists have created the world's first material standards for simulating asteroid regolith and cobble surfaces.
The new standards will help engineers prepare for off-world colony building by more precisely simulating extraterrestrial surfaces.
"I'm firmly convinced that by the end of the century there will be more economic activity off planet Earth than on planet Earth," lead researcher Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida, said in a news release.
Asteroids containing valuable minerals like platinum or other rare earth metals could be worth billions of dollars. Several companies, including Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, are already working on asteroid prospecting missions.
"With economics moving in that direction, it's important for us to get a head start trying to create the regulatory and engineering environments to make sure everything is done safely and justly," Metzger said.
In the past, efforts to simulate extraterrestrial surfaces have been plagued by inconsistencies. Scientists have used a wide variety of materials -- everything from floral foam to beach sand -- to simulate the same extraterrestrial surfaces.
To solve the problem, NASA established material standards for simulated lunar soil and Martian dirt. Metzger and his colleagues extended NASA's material standards to asteroid surfaces.
To develop the new standards -- published in the journal Icarus -- researchers precisely characterized the properties of asteroid surfaces, including: "mineralogical and elemental composition, grain density, bulk density of cobbles, magnetic susceptibility, mechanical strength of cobbles and volatile release patterns."
According to Metzger, standardization will help scientists choose the right simulation materials for their experiments. The standards will also make it easier to compare the results of different studies, because different groups of scientists studying the same asteroid, or the same type of asteroid, will use the exact same materials to simulate the surface.
"We have to communicate what the properties are so everyone knows its limitations so they won't use it for a test it wasn't designed to simulate," Metzger said.
To test the accuracy of their new standards, engineers used them to simulate the surface of Orgueil, a meteorite that struck France in 1864. The model material featured properties with a high degree of similarity to Orgueil's actual properties.
"We're delighted we could get such a high-fidelity simulant," Metzger said. "The fact that we were able to replicate those eight properties with such high fidelity tells us that these simulants will be very valuable for companies doing asteroid mining, doing tests of constructions of facilities and landing pads, metal extraction and more."