Science & Technology

This Company Wants You to Grow a Garden in Martian Soil

Mars is hot right now. Not literally — it's much colder than Earth — but the planet is certainly having a cultural moment. The Martian, the hit 2015 movie, was basically a Castaway remake set on Mars. Billionaire Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars. And now, you can buy imitation Martian soil online. Wait, what?

Related: Gardening on the International Space Station

Martian Soil 101

To be totally clear, humans have never gotten actual samples of the soil on Mars. We've never sent a manned mission there, and though we've sent spacecraft, they've only sent back their analysis of soil samples — never the soil itself. It's hard enough to get to Mars, let alone to get back laden with potentially hazardous dirt!

So far, we just know that Martian soil — also known as "regolith" — comes from iron-rich, volcanic rock and that it's varied in texture. Particles of the Martian regolith range from chunky gravel to ultra-fine dust. This dust often floats up into the air, which makes the environment on the planet pretty hostile to spacecraft since the dust can get in even the tiniest crack.

(Mars is hostile to humans, too, but not just because of the dust. The atmosphere is ultra-thin, akin to Earth's atmosphere at a 100,000-foot altitude, and it's only 0.1 percent oxygen, compared to Earth's 21 percent.)

This is all to say: Martian soil is important not only because it offers clues about how livable the planet is, but also because it ruins our expensive space technology when we try to ignore it. So back in 1997, NASA engineers started trying to make a simulation of it. At first, they used ground-up basalt from Hawaiian lava flows; then, as they learned more about how Martian soil reacts to water, they started using basalt from a different lava flow, this one in the Mojave Desert. Today, civilians can buy this Mojave Martian simulant for their own purposes.

Dirt for Sale!

The Martian Garden, headquartered in Austin, is the online shop selling the simulant. Their version is made from the same Mojave basalt deposits that NASA uses. In fact, it's so similar to NASA's simulant that NASA featured it in one of their magazines devoted to the private sector uses of NASA technology.

The Martian Garden offers two simulant varieties, one slightly more accurate when it comes to the latest intel from Mars — but that's not all they sell. The company also sells Martian Garden kits, their namesake. The $20 starter packs contain Martian soil simulant, seeds for assorted microgreens, a portable plastic greenhouse, and pretty much anything else you'll need to grow a garden. The pitch: It's the closest present-day humans can get to gardening on Mars! (It may have been inspired by the movie The Martian, whose protagonist, a NASA botanist, survives being stranded on the Red Planet in part by growing potatoes in Martian soil.)

The company's larger project is to raise public enthusiasm for Mars exploration since, their website opines, "a well-informed and enthusiastic public base of support is the most important element on the Journey to Mars." Without popular support, the government will struggle to fund Mars-related research and missions. Then again, there's always Elon Musk's private spaceflight company SpaceX to fall back on. Musk hopes to start sending people to Mars in 2024.

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Hear what the second man on the moon has to say about the second planet we'll set foot on in Buzz Aldrin's "Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice September 24, 2018

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