U of S students take to the skies for asteroid mining experiment

Last week, members of the University of Saskatchewan's Space Design Team went soaring through the air in a jet to test out their latest project.

Students experienced microgravity in specialized jet

University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team project lead Adam Lozinsky says flying in a jet for his experiment was a great experience. (Rosalie Woloski/CBC News)

Last week, members of the University of Saskatchewan's Space Design Team went soaring through the air in a jet to test out their latest project.

On July 27, the team got a chance to ride in the National Research Council's Falcon 20 jet, which can temporarily suspend gravity by flying into the stratosphere and then plunging down. 

"There's no other experience I've ever had like it," engineering student and project lead Adam Lozinsky told CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning. "It's so fun to take an object and place it in the middle of the air, and it just stays. It doesn't go anywhere."

It wasn't all fun and games. The team won a seat on the plane with their STARFOX project (Spinning Terrestrial Analog Regolith Filtering Operation eXperiment), a system designed to be used for asteroid mining in the future.

"Basically, we were just taking dirt, and trying to separate the small dirt out of the big dirt," he said. 

While that may sound like a simple task, it gets considerably more complicated in zero gravity. While sifting rocks works easily with Earth's gravity, in space, small rocks don't fall through the holes. 

So the team designed a spinning mesh-covered cone — sort of like a tiny tornado — that sorts out the rocks. While the experiment wasn't flawless, it did bring back some positive results.

The 130-kilometre-wide Lutetia asteroid is the type of heavenly body that has attracted the attention of asteroid mining companies. (Reuters)

"We had a model of what we wanted the particulates to do in our experiment, and they didn't follow that," he said. "But we don't think it was a failure of the model. We think it was a failure of the way we constructed the apparatus."

Lozinski said the experience was nerve-racking. The team was only given seven 20-second intervals of microgravity to do their work.

"We managed to get some interesting information. We're still going through the data," he said. "When we landed, it was nothing but smiles."