Space dirt made on Earth

Simulated dirt could help humans colonize other planets

Space dirt is not dirt cheap. The head of a local lab that makes it tells us why some space dirt costs $5 per ounce to buy.

The space race is in full throttle.

We’ve been to the moon with plans on going back by 2024 thanks to the Artemis program.

It’s not the only out-of-this-world destination for space companies. They also have their eyes firmly trained on celestial bodies beyond the lunar surface. Mars and even asteroids are in the crosshairs when it comes to exploring space.

We know billionaire and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, has a goal of not just getting to Mars, but also one day colonizing the red planet.

While movies like The Martian would have you believe all you need is Matt Damon’s bodily waste, Martian soil and a greenhouse to grow potatoes until your heart’s content, that’s not really how it works.

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Shocking, I know.

That’s where UCF and its Exolith Lab come in. Exolith has produced and shipped some 25 tons of fake space dirt this year alone.

Wait, what? Soil can be made in a lab? Sounds crazy but that’s exactly what’s happening at UCF.

Anchors Matt Austin and Ginger Gadsden recently spoke with Dr. Zoe Landsman on Florida’s Fourth Estate about space dirt and so much more.

Landsman is the Chief Scientist of UCF’s Exolith Lab. She explained how they are able to make simulated dirt that could be found on other worlds.

So how do you even go about making dirt? Where do you start?

Landsman explained, “Dirt found on earth is formed over time by rain and wind erosion and by organic processes. So, there are bits of decaying plant matter in there. There’s matter that worms have digested.”

Sounds delightful.

Did you knopw moon dirt feels like baby powder? A local lab produces and sells space dirt. But, how do they know how to reproduce it?

Bottom line, there are various complex and volatile things that make dirt on our planet.

But what about the moon where there is no volatility?

“There is no atmosphere, there’s no water. So the dirt that’s on the surface of the moon is just rocks, moon rocks that have been broken up into essentially powder,” Landsman said.

“You can think of like baby powder texture over billions of years by impacts of micrometeorites.”

The next time you look up at the moon you’re likely to think it’s covered in baby powder. Landsman said that fine powdery surface is why the astronauts who have walked on the moon were able to leave such a perfect boot impression.

It’s likely some of the methods used to grow food on the moon and Mars will have been tested first on the soil developed in this UCF lab.

Growing food isn’t the only reason scientists need to know what kind of soil is on the moon, Mars or some other planet...

If an engineering team wants to test the tire design of a rover headed for Moon’s south pole, it would need “softer” fake moon dirt based on the data available about the Moon.

You know those rovers on Mars? Well, it would be a shame if they spent seven months and 245 million miles in transit only to land in some Martian crater and realize the tires needed more traction.

The lab produces several kinds of simulants depending on the client’s needs. There are more than 10 options available, and Landsman works with clients who need custom orders.

We are told Almost 25 tons of high-fidelity simulants have been shipped so far this year to scientists and engineers around the world so they can test their ideas before launching them into space.

To find out what kind of crops will grow on the moon or what kinds of vehicles will travel from place to place on other planets by first testing it out with simulated soil on earth is an ingenious idea. But it comes to a substantial price tag. In other words, it’s not dirt cheap.

What can grow in Mars soil? Would we be limited to potatoes like the movie "The Martian?" The head of a local space dirt lab fills us in.

Matt wanted to know about the cost of the specialty soil. Reports put the price tag at five bucks an ounce.

Landsman pointed out that right now they are set up as a non-profit.

“The simulant we sell is essentially at cost. The cost of us to get the raw materials and the cost of labor to crush it and the cost to ship it. So, we’re essentially operating at cost,” she said. “We were set up under a grant with NASA and so we’re here to be a service to the scientific and engineering community. We want to make good, high quality, fake space dirt that works well for a lot of uses and make it as cheap as we can.”

Customers include NASA and commercial companies domestically and around the globe, who are using the dirt to test equipment being developed for Moon, Mars, and asteroid missions.

Landsman said things do tend to get expensive when they try to replicate something unique.

She gave us one example by explaining when micrometeorites hit the surface of the moon there is a tremendous amount of energy released which causes the soil to melt and form glass.

She said the glassy substance is a weird “blobby” formation which can be key to how dirt behaves. Currently, Exolith Lab is working on simulating that particular component by melting space dirt to make those blobs the right shape which is very labor-intensive and costly.

The business of making fake space dirt has certainly grown over the years.

The first year the lab operated in 2018, less than half a ton of the experimental dirt was produced and shipped. Last. year the lab produced five tons of simulated dirt. So far this year the lab has churned out nearly 25 tons of it.

Landsman said there is currently at least one private company in the space dirt game. She said while it’s a valid business model, her job at Exolith is to make the best dirt available as cheaply as they can.

If you would like to hear more about Landsman click on the link below for Florida’s Fourth Estate.

Florida’s Fourth Estate looks at everything from swampy politics to a fragile environment and even the crazy headlines that make Florida the craziest state in the Union.

Ginger Gadsden and Matt Austin use decades of experience as journalists to dissect the headlines that impact Florida. Each week they have a guest host who helps give an irreverent look at the issues impacting the Sunshine State. Big influencers, like Attorney John Morgan, renowned Florida journalists and the scientists protecting Florida’s ecosystem, can often be found as guests.

About the Author:

Ginger Gadsden joined the News 6 team in June 2014 as an anchor/reporter. She currently co-anchors the 4 p.m. 5:30 p.m. and the 7 p.m. newscasts.