Astrophysicists Are Selling Lab-Made Martian Dirt to Researchers for $20 a Kilogram

NASA/JPL/Cornell University
NASA/JPL/Cornell University

It's impossible for NASA scientists to get their hands on authentic Mars dirt without sending a rover millions of miles to the red planet and back. A much more efficient way to study the properties of Martian soil is to pay $20 a kilogram for an approximation of the stuff that was cooked up in a lab.

According to the University of Central Florida, a team of astrophysicists from the college has successfully developed artificial dirt, called a simulant, that mimics what you'd find on the surface of Mars. The planet gets its signature red hue from a thick coating of oxidized iron dust. Beneath this layer is a crust of mostly volcanic basalt rock. Unlike terrestrial dirt, Martian dirt contains no organic matter, but it does carry nutrients like sodium, potassium, chloride, and magnesium.

All of the components that make up soil on Mars can be found on Earth, though some are easier to find than others. After formulating a recipe for their simulant, the UCF astrophysicists tracked down the ingredients, ground them into a powder, mixed them into a paste, baked the mixture, and pulverized it again. The final product is being sold to scientists interested in Mars research, such as the Kennedy Space Center, which has already placed an order for half a ton of the fake dirt.

For researchers looking at the feasibility of sending people to Mars, Martian dirt—or something a lot like it—is an invaluable tool. Every ounce of cargo will be precious on a potential Mars mission, and the ability to grow crops when the crew arrives on our neighboring planet could make the difference between the mission's success and failure. UCF's simulant allows scientists to test different methods of agriculture.

Like dirt on Earth, Mars dirt comes in many different varieties, and the formula developed by UCF isn't the standard used by all Mars researchers. But if anyone is looking to replicate experiments conducted with the UCF simulant, they can find the recipe in the study the researchers published in the journal Icarus.

Martian soil isn't the only space matter the university specializes in. The astrophysicists there also create simulants for lunar and asteroid soil, but these are much more difficult to make: Some of the ingredients can only be sourced from meteorites that have fallen to Earth.

The Northern Lights May be Visible in New York, Michigan, and Illinois on Saturday

The Northern Lights, a meteorological event most common to areas north of the Arctic Circle, may be visible over parts of America this weekend, Newsweek reports. Due to a solar storm, the light show may appear Saturday night over states in the northern part of the contiguous U.S., including New York, Michigan, Illinois, and Washington state.

Aurora borealis, or the Northern Lights, occur when solar particles react to gases in Earth's atmosphere. Magnetic energy exaggerates this effect, which is why auroras most often appear at the geomagnetic poles where Earth's magnetic field is strongest. Rare circumstances can produce this phenomenon at lower latitudes, which may be the case this weekend.

On Wednesday, March 20, a solar flare sent a blast of solar particles toward Earth. The resulting geomagnetic storm could make for a vibrant and colorful aurora reaching as far south as New York and Wisconsin.

To catch the spectacle, look up at the night sky on Saturday, March 23. People in areas with minimal light pollution have the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights, though cloudy weather may make them hard to see.

[h/t Newsweek]

5 Fast Facts About the Spring Equinox

The northern hemisphere has officially survived a long winter of Arctic temperatures, bomb cyclones, and ice tsunamis. Spring starts March 20, which means warmer weather and longer days are around the corner. To celebrate the spring equinox, hear are some facts about the event.

1. The spring equinox arrives at 5:58 p.m.

The first day of spring is today, but the spring equinox will only be here for a brief time. At 5:58 p.m. Eastern Time, the Sun will be perfectly in line with the equator, which results in both the northern and southern hemispheres receiving equal amounts of sunlight throughout the day. After the vernal equinox has passed, days will start to become shorter for the Southern Hemisphere and longer up north.

2. The Equinox isn't the only time you can balance an egg.

You may have heard the myth that you can balance on egg on its end during the vernal equinox, and you may have even tried the experiment in school. The idea is that the extra gravitational pull from the Sun when it's over the equator helps the egg stand up straight. While it is possible to balance an egg, the trick has nothing to do with the equinox: You can make an egg stand on its end by setting it on a rough surface any day of the year.

3. Not every place gets equal night and day.

The equal night and day split between the northern and southern hemispheres isn't distributed evenly across all parts of the world. Though every region gets approximately 12 hours of sunlight the day of the vernal equinox, some places get a little more (the day is 12 hours and 15 minute in Fairbanks, Alaska), and some get less (it's 12 hours and 6 minutes in Miami).

4. The name means Equal Night.

The word equinox literally translates to equal ("equi") and night ("nox") in Latin. The term vernal means "new and fresh," and comes from the Latin word vernus for "of spring."

5. The 2019 spring equinox coincides with a supermoon.

On March 20, the day the Sun lines up with equator, the Moon will reach the closest point to Earth in its orbit. The Moon will also be full, making it the third supermoon of 2019. A full moon last coincided with the first day of spring on March 20, 1981, and it the two events won't occur within 24 hours of each other again until 2030.