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.

How to Livestream Tonight’s Super Pink Moon

Matt Cardy/Stringer/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Stringer/Getty Images

On April 7, 2020, a super pink moon will appear over the horizon. Though it's not actually pink (the name's meaning comes from the wildflower Phlox subulata, or moss pink), the supermoon is still worth seeing. Today, the moon will reach the closest point to Earth in its orbit just hours before becoming completely full, which adds up to give us the biggest and brightest supermoon of the year. And no matter where you are in the world, you can livestream the spectacle online.

Slooh, a celestial event streaming service, will begin broadcasting the super pink moon at 7:30 p.m. ET tonight, April 7. A team of astronomy experts and educators will be joining the feed to provide commentary until the stream ends. You can tune in through Slooh's Facebook live event or YouTube channel for free, or you can become a member to watch it on their website.

Slooh has telescopes around the world that allow users to explore space from their computers. If you sign up for a membership today, you'll be able to capture and share photos of the supermoon, virtually interact with the experts at the live event, and personally control Slooh’s telescopes to customize your view of the moon. And when tonight's event is over, you'll still be able to virtually control Slooh's six telescopes in the Canary Islands and four telescopes in Chile throughout the year.

A basic, annual membership with Slooh costs $100. If you're a student, the service is offering a limited-edition price of $20 for individuals. The deal aims to promote remote teaching and learning during a time when schools around the world are closed.

For people living in cities with light pollution, celestial livestreams are a great alternative to real-life stargazing. Slooh isn't the only platform airing tonight's event. Today, the Virtual Telescope Project in Italy will host its own livestream of the super pink moon on YouTube.

A Super Pink Moon—the Biggest Supermoon of 2020—Is Coming In April

April's super pink moon will be extra big and bright (but still white).
April's super pink moon will be extra big and bright (but still white).
jakkapan21/iStock via Getty Images

The sky has already given us several spectacular reasons to look up this year. In addition to a few beautiful full moons, we’ve also gotten opportunities to see the moon share a “kiss” with Venus and even make Mars briefly disappear.

In early April, avid sky-gazers are in for another treat—a super pink moon, the biggest supermoon of 2020. This full moon is considered a supermoon because it coincides with the moon’s perigee, or the point in the moon’s monthly orbit when it’s closest to Earth. According to EarthSky, the lunar perigee occurs on April 7 at 2:08 p.m. EST, and the peak of the full moon follows just hours later, at 10:35 p.m. EST.

How a supermoon is different.

Since the super pink moon will be closer to Earth than any other full moon this year, it will be 2020’s biggest and brightest. It’s also the second of three consecutive supermoons, sandwiched between March’s worm moon and May’s flower moon. Because supermoons only appear about 7 percent bigger and 15 percent brighter than regular full moons, you might not notice a huge difference—but even the most ordinary full moon is pretty breathtaking, so the super pink moon is worth an upward glance when night falls on April 7.

The meaning of pink moon.

Despite its name, the super pink moon will still shine with a normal golden-white glow. As The Old Farmer’s Almanac explains, April’s full moon derives its misleading moniker from an eastern North American wildflower called Phlox subulata, or moss pink, that usually blooms in early April. It’s also called the paschal moon, since its timing helps the Catholic Church set the date for Easter (the word paschal means “of or relating to Easter”).

[h/t EarthSky]

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