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October 2, 2018

Attention, space gardeners: Simulated Martian soil now on sale for $20 a kilo

by John_A

University of Central Florida

Have you got $20, plus postage, burning a hole in your pocket? If so, you may be interested in an offer from astrophysicists at the University of Central Florida: Martian soil that’s on sale for research purposes, priced at 20 bucks per kilogram. Okay, so it’s not actually soil taken from the Red Planet, but rather dirt created using the first scientific, standardized method to make a simulant material which will act in the same way as the real thing.

“We’re creating simulated, or artificial, soils that mimic those found on Mars, the Moon, and asteroids,” Kevin Cannon, a post-doctoral researcher who helped develop the material, told Digital Trends. “They’re made up of different minerals that occur naturally on Earth, but mixed up in unique proportions that are very unlike terrestrial soils.”

The University of Central Florida formula soil is based on the chemical signature of materials gathered on Mars by the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012. UCF Physics Professor Dan Britt, who also worked on this project, built two calibration targets which were part of the Curiosity rover.

But why exactly is a renowned university drumming up a few extra bucks by selling dirt? As it turns out, it’s less about pulling in money than something a whole lot more important: standardization. At present, a number of institutions, organizations and startups are researching topics like how best to grow food on Mars. However, they’re not using standardized simulants, which makes it difficult to compare experimental results in any meaningful way. By creating its more accurate space soil simulant, the UCF researchers hope to advance research in a more practical, useful manner.

“We work mostly with planetary scientists and engineers at universities, NASA centers, and private space companies,” Cannon continued. “There are all kinds of applications, including testing robotics, extracting resources like water from planetary materials, and learning to grow plants on future missions to Mars or the moon.”

It turns out that making Martian soil isn’t exactly a niche industry, either. To date, the university has gotten requests from more than 50 different groups, totaling more than half a metric ton of simulant. “We’re planning on having the capacity to make between hundreds of kilos and several tons per year,” Cannon said.

A paper describing the work is available to read online.

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