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.

This Cool T-Shirt Shows Every Object Brought on the Apollo 11 Mission

Fringe Focus
Fringe Focus

NASA launched the Apollo 11 mission on July 16, 1969, ending the space race and beginning a new era of international space exploration. Just in time for the mission's 50th anniversary this year, Fringe Focus is selling a t-shirt that displays every item the Apollo 11 astronauts brought with them to the Moon.

The design, by artist Rob Loukotka, features some of the iconic objects from the mission, such as a space suit and helmet, as well as the cargo that never made it to primetime. Detailed illustrations of freeze-dried meals, toiletries, and maintenance kits are included on the shirt. The artist looked at 200 objects and chose to represent some similar items with one drawing, ending up with 69 pictures in total.

The unisex shirt is made from lightweight cotton, and comes in seven sizes ranging from small to 4XL. It's available in black heather or heather midnight navy for $29.

If you really like the design, the artwork is available in other forms. The same illustration has also been made into poster with captions indicating which pictures represent multiple items of a similar nature.

The International Space Station Will Start Accepting Visitors … For $58 Million

iStock/forplayday
iStock/forplayday

If you've ever wanted to visit the International Space Station, your chance is coming soon—assuming you have a few million set aside. Recently, NASA announced that this orbiting outpost will be open to private citizens starting in 2020.

However, it won't be cheap. According to The Denver Post, each trip could last up to 30 days, and NASA estimates the cost of a round trip at $58 million, as well as an additional $35,000 charge per night. And, it's not just for kicks—you need to have a mission of your own. The space agency is allowing companies that want to conduct commercial or marketing work to send employees to the ISS as long as they meet one of the three requirements:

  • require the unique microgravity environment to enable manufacturing, production, or development of a commercial application;
  • have a connection to NASA's mission; or
  • support the development of a sustainable low-Earth orbit economy

The space station had a visitor back in 2001—Californian businessman Dennis Titobecame history's first space tourist when he spent a week aboard the ISS with two Russian cosmonauts who took him out there on a Russian spacecraft—but this would be a first for NASA. The agency was opposed to training and flying with Tito back in 2001; at the time, NASA administrator Daniel Goldin said, "Space is dangerous. It's not a joyride. Space is not about egos."

Now, NASA is ready to open the shuttle doors to private citizens. In addition to U.S. citizens, those from other countries are eligible to travel as long as they fly on a U.S.-operated rocket. These lucky private astronauts will have to go through the same medical checks, physical training, and certification procedures as crew members before traveling—a process that could take up to two years.

Along with this exciting news, NASA has bigger plans in mind. They are considering the possibility of a private sector company eventually taking control of the station and paying for its expensive upkeep. NASA has yet to announce when this transition would take place, but said in a statement that the "ultimate goal in low-Earth orbit is to partner with industry to achieve a strong ecosystem in which NASA is one of many customers purchasing services and capabilities at lower cost."

In addition, they hope that the revenue will assist in the operational costs for NASA's Artemis program, which is focused on sending astronauts—including the first woman—to the Moon by 2024.

[h/t The Denver Post]

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