We’ve been sending probes and rovers to Mars for years, but we have yet to get a sample of the red planet back to Earth. The best we can do is characterize the planet and transmit the results. If we’re going to plan for a long-term human presence on Mars, simply understanding the Martian soil is vital. A project from the University of Central Florida’s Planetary Sciences Group sought to create the best replica of Martian dirt yet, and it’s selling the material for $20 per kilogram.
There have been various artificial Mars soil recipes over the decades, which are known as “simulants.” The most well-known Mars simulant is JSC Mars-1, created by NASA’s Johnson Space Center. It was never produced at industrial scale, so several companies have popped up to create their own versions of JSV Mars-1. There’s also Mojave Mars Simulant (MMS), but that material is not available outside of NASA. A company called The Martian Garden claims to have two simulants for sale that use the same source recipe as MMS, but they have used a base of red cinder material instead of the original Saddleback Basalt.
The goal of the University of Central Florida project to create an open standard for Mars simulant, which it calls Mars Global Simulant (or MGS-1). We know more about the surface of Mars now than we did in the past, so it’s a chance for scientists to incorporate all the proper chemical properties into a simulant.
While the old simulants were a good guess, they’re missing some crucial elements of the real thing. We have good evidence today that most of Mars’ dust comes from the erosion of one large basalt formation called Medusae Fossae. Additionally, we know that Martian dust is a mix of a mixture of crystalline and amorphous phases when examined by x-ray. JSC Mars-1 is most x-ray amorphous, and MMS is almost entirely crystalline. We also know that Martian regolith has significant sulfur, which is missing from existing base formulae.
The University of Central Florida team started from the basic mineralogy of Mars using analysis from the Curiosity rover of samples gathered in a location called Rocknest. The crystalline fraction of MGS-1 consists of minerals like olivine, magnetite, and anhydrite. Rocknest also probably contains amorphous materials like basaltic glass, hydrated silica, and ferrihydrite. So, those are in MGS-1 as well.
Other teams can use the base MGS-1 standards to make their own simulant from powdered ingredients, and minor modifications can recreate different regional soil variations. However, the team recognizes it make be easier for researchers to simply buy the simulant. That’s why the university is selling MGS-1 to other institutions for $20 per kilogram (you can’t buy it yet). It already has about 30 orders, including one from Kennedy Space Center for half a ton.
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