science fair 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. The Martian Garden / Facebook The Martian Garden / Facebook 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. Get stories like this one in your inbox each morning. Sign up for our daily email here. 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.

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. The Martian Garden / Facebook The Martian Garden / Facebook 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. Get stories like this one in your inbox each morning. Sign up for our daily email here. 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.

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.

The Martian Garden / Facebook

The Martian Garden / Facebook
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.

Get stories like this one in your inbox each morning. Sign up for our daily email here.

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.

Airbus is to design a robot that can be sent to Mars to collect soil samples before being blasted back to space for further analysis on Earth.

The European Space Agency (ESA) issued the large engineering firm with contracts to design a ‘Sample Fetch Rover’ and an ‘Earth Return Orbiter’.

The Mars mission is expected to take place before the end of the next decade and Nasa and ESA signed a letter of intent in April 2018 to pursue a ‘Mars Sample Return’ mission.

In May, Nasa announced plans to deliver a helicopter drone to the Red Planet in 2020, where it will assist with exploring areas of the planet that the next rover cannot reach.

After launching to Mars in 2026, the Mars Sample Fetch Rover will retrieve Mars samples left by the Mars 2020 rover.

That rover will leave 36 pen-sized sample tubes on the Martian surface, ready to be collected later.

The Sample Fetch Rover will pick up the sample tubes, carry them back and load them into a container within the waiting ‘Mars Ascent Vehicle’, which will then launch from the surface and put the sample container into orbit around Mars.
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As a third part of the mission, ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter, will capture the basketball-sized sample container orbiting Mars, seal it within a biocontainment system and bring the samples back to Earth.

The samples will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land in the USA before the end of the next decade. Scientists from around the world will then be able to study the samples using the latest laboratory equipment and analysis techniques.

Airbus project manager Patrick Lelong, who is working on the Earth Return Orbiter, said: “Our long experience in complex scientific exploration missions such as Rosetta, BepiColombo and Mars Express will be a great asset for this study. The mission is technologically very challenging, but the prospect of seeing a sample of Mars returning to Earth is very exciting.”

Ben Boyes, Airbus project manager for the Sample Fetch Rover study, said: “With the combined expertise of ESA and NASA, this landmark mission is ambitious and technologically very advanced, with two rovers interacting together on Mars for the first time. A double first of launching from the planet’s surface and the in-orbit transfer of the samples means it will be possible for the first time to directly study Mars soil in laboratories on Earth.”

David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at ESA, said: “Bringing samples back from Mars is essential in more than one way. Firstly, to understand why Mars – although it is the planet that is most similar to Earth – took a very different evolutionary path than Earth and secondly to fully comprehend the Martian environment in order to allow humans to one day work and live on the Red Planet.

“I am very pleased that with these two studies now being commissioned and in combination with other studies conducted elsewhere in Europe we make another important step to explore Mars.”

In June, hazy pictures of the surface of Mars were beamed back from the Curiosity Rover, taken just before a dust storm that enveloped vast swathes of the planet.

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