Ideas | Kelly Kasulis

The high stakes in fake Martian soil


Humans have high hopes of colonizing Mars. NASA aims to send humans there by the 2030s, while more than 274,000 people have whittled the details of an aspiring space nation down to a 35-page constitution, a coat of arms, and best practices for Martian apartment building.

But researchers will need something far more basic than that: a recipe for replica Martian dirt. And thanks to a new study from the University of Central Florida, scientists might have it.

Researchers used readings from the Mars Curiosity rover to identify the chemical signatures of Martian soil. Then they gathered the basic materials from Earth (barring a few dangerous ones), ground them into a powder, mixed them together, baked them, then ground them up again. Now, they’re selling the soil to researchers and educators — fake space dirt, all for $20 a kilogram.

“Before this, we’ve had a bunch of other Martian simulants that get the color more or less right, but just because something is red doesn’t mean it’s accurate,” said Dan Britt, an author on the study and the director of the Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science at the University of Central Florida. “The latest rover has given us solid data on what the actual mineralogy is.”

Britt’s dirt is “probably within 85 to 90 percent of what you’re likely to find on the surface of Mars,” and that could unlock serious doors. Not only will researchers be able to more accurately test their lab equipment on the synthetic soil, but scientists might have a better chance at developing a galactic green thumb.


“If we want to colonize Mars, we need to take seeds and vegetations with us . . . So one use for [simulant soil] is to try and grow different kinds of edible plants on Mars,” said Dayl Martin, a research fellow and curator at the European Space Agency’s Sample Analog Curation Facility.

“If you’ve watched ‘The Martian,’ it would have been really bad if Matt Damon planted those potatoes and they didn’t grow,” Britt said. “You don’t want surprises. So being able to [grow plants] in a controlled environment on Earth is the first step to establishing a sustainable presence on Mars.”


Mars missions of all kinds typically draw skepticism, especially when it comes to the idea of humans colonizing the red planet. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that researchers are determined to explore ways to sustain life on Mars — and truly from the ground up.

“We might have said the same thing about going to South America in 1493,” Britt said. “We knew it was there, but there were a lot of unknowns. What we have to do is start crossing out those unknowns.”

Kelly Kasulis is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @KasulisK.