Getting the Real Dirt on Mars, Right Here on Earth

Public Domain. University of Central Florida News

Can astronauts grow potatoes on Mars?

Studying the best foods for future space travelers to grow poses special challenges. In particular, Martian soil differs from that here on Earth, so any experiments on space agriculture must start by concocting a soil mixture that resembles the Martian surface. Differing soil mixtures mean that experiments cannot be replicated easily in other labs.

Waiting for enough missions to carry back soil for experiments would delay progress terribly. Fortunately, recent Mars missions have stoked a big leap in scientific knowledge about the characteristics of Martian soil. So astrophysicists at the University of Central Florida have turned their hand to replicating the best studied Martian dirt, known as Rocknest. Rocknest is believed to be similar to soils at other landing sites, which makes it a good sample to study.

UCF physics professor Dan Britt built some of the equipment sent to study Mars on the Curiosity Rover. The UCF team uses data from these Mars missions to inventory the constituents of Martian soil, creating a recipe of ingredients and the proportions in which they must be mixed to simulate Martian soil, which is why their product is known as a "simulant."

Most of the ingredients for Martian soil can be easily found here on Earth, but some prove quite tricky to find because they have been brought to our planet only by the occasional meteorite. In some cases, the scientists must substitute an ingredient that mimics the Martian elements.

The UCF team has published their recipe for Martian Soil in the journal Icarus, but they also think that other labs might prefer to avoid the effort so they are selling their Martian soil simulant for $20 per kilogram, plus shipping. They have about 30 orders already, including one for half a ton of soil to be sent to the Kennedy Space Center.

Or if you want to make your own Martian mud, but you're not sure where to go looking for meteorite dust, you can also order asteroid and moon simulants from UCF. Kevin Cannon, the lead author of the open source paper on how to make Martian soil, hopes to accelerate the exploration of space with this contribution.