Scientists at the University of Central Florida (UCF) are selling cheap but close imitations of dirt from asteroids, the moon, and Mars.
For $20 plus shipping, people can own a kilogram of dirt that can be used for various researches, including growing food, which would be useful once humans are ready to create a colony outside of Earth.
To create the Martian dirt, the team of astrophysicists from UCF used the data collected by Curiosity's X-ray diffraction. The rover has been exploring the Red Planet since it landed on its surface in August 2012 and now has over six years of new information, including the composition and physical properties of the soil.
The findings were published in the journal Icarus.
Dan Britt, a physics professor at UCF, said that researchers who are currently conducting experiments related to the conditions on the surface of Mars are using dirt called simulants that are not standardized. Therefore, he said that comparing results would be an "apples-to-apples kind of way."
With UCF's standardized method of creating Martian or asteroid dirt, researchers will be able to test growing food using soil that most closely resembles the stuff found on the surface of the Red Planet.
"If we are going to go, we'll need food, water and other essentials. As we are developing solutions, we need a way to test how these ideas will fare," Britt said. "You wouldn't want to discover that your method didn't work when we are actually there."
The study's lead author and postdoctoral researcher, Kevin Cannon, said that, like Earth, there are different types of dirt found on the surface of Mars and other planets. UCF is already offering a wide variety of simulants, including asteroids. Cannon is also currently in Montana to collect materials to be used for a moon simulant.
At $20, it will be a lot cheaper for researchers to use simulants rather than moon and asteroid materials that can only be sourced from small amounts of meteorites that end up on Earth. Even if, eventually, planned space missions can bring back real soil from the surface of Mars, it would only be available in small quantities.
UCF said that they already have customers, including the Kennedy Space Center, which ordered half a ton of their simulants. The formula is now available for everyone to use and create their own dirt for upcoming experiments.
"I expect we will see significant learning happening from access to this material," Britt concluded.