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.

Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit Will Go Back on Display for Apollo 11's 50th Anniversary

Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Neil Armstrong made history when he became the first person to walk on the Moon 50 years ago. Space exploration has changed since then, but the white space suit with the American flag patch that Armstrong wore on that first walk is still what many people think of when they picture an astronaut. Now, after sitting in storage for a decade, that iconic suit is ready to go on display, according to Smithsonian.

NASA donated Neil Armstrong's suit to the Smithsonian shortly after the Apollo 11 mission. For about 30 years, it was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Then, in 2006, the museum moved the artifact to storage to minimize damage.

Even away from the exhibit halls, the suit was deteriorating, and the Smithsonian knew it would need to be better preserved if it was to be shown to the public again. In 2015, the institution launched its first-ever Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $700,000 for conservation efforts.

After a multi-year preservation project, the suit will finally return to the museum floor on July 16, 2019—the date that marks 50 years since Apollo 11 launched. This time around, the suit will be displayed on a structure that was custom built to support its interior, protecting it from the weight of gravity. Climate-controlled air will flow through the gear to recreate the stable environment of a storage unit.

Even if you can't make it to the National Air and Space Museum to see Armstrong's space suit in person, soon you'll be able to appreciate it from home in a whole new way. The museum used various scanning techniques to create an intricate 3D model of the artifact. Once the scans are reconfigured for home computers, the Smithsonian's digitization team plans to make an interactive version of the digital model freely available on its website.

[h/t Smithsonian]

What Is the Kitchen Like on the International Space Station?


Clayton C. Anderson:

The International Space Station (ISS) does not really have a "kitchen" as many of us here on Earth might relate to. But, there is an area called the "galley" which serves the purpose of allowing for food preparation and consumption. I believe the term "galley" comes from the military, and it was used specifically in the space shuttle program. I guess it carried over to the ISS.

The Russian segment had the ONLY galley when I flew in 2007. There was a table for three, and the galley consisted of a water system—allowing us to hydrate our food packages (as needed) with warm (tepid) or hot (extremely) water—and a food warmer. The food warmer designed by the Russians was strictly used for their cans of food (about the size of a can of cat food in America). The U.S. developed a second food warmer (shaped like a briefcase) that we could use to heat the more "flexibly packaged" foodstuffs (packets) sent from America.

Later in the ISS lifetime, a second galley area was provided in the U.S. segment. It is positioned in Node 1 (Unity) and a table is also available there for the astronauts' dining pleasures. Apparently, it was added because of the increasing crew size experienced these days (6), to have more options. During my brief visit to ISS in 2010 (12 days or so) as a Discovery crewmember, I found the mealtimes to be much more segregated than when I spent five months on board. The Russians ate in the Russian segment. The shuttle astronauts ate in the shuttle. The U.S. ISS astronauts ate in Node 1, but often at totally different times. While we did have a combined dinner in Node 1 during STS-131 (with the Expedition 23 crew), this is one of the perceived negatives of the "multiple-galley" scenario. My long duration stint on ISS was highlighted by the fact that Fyodor Yurchikhin, Oleg Kotov, and I had every single meal together. The fellowship we—or at least I—experienced during those meals is something I will never, ever forget. We laughed, we argued, we celebrated, we mourned …, all around our zero-gravity "dinner table." Awesome stuff!

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Clayton "Astro Clay" Anderson is an astronaut, motivational speaker, author, and STEAM education advocate.

His award-winning book The Ordinary Spaceman, Astronaut Edition Fisher Space Pen, and new children's books A is for Astronaut; Blasting Through the Alphabet and It's a Question of Space: An Ordinary Astronaut's Answers to Sometimes Extraordinary Questions are available at For speaking events Follow @Astro_Clay #WeBelieveInAstronauts