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Our lunar ambitions depend on this fake Moon dirt

Fun fact from the files of “there’s a job for that”: there are multiple companies that specialize in making fake Moon dirt. Technically, it’s called lunar regolith to help differentiate it from “soil,” which implies the presence of organic material, or from “dirt,” which, for this story, I learned literally just means “anything that makes you dirty.” Whatever you call it, it is nothing like our friendly terrestrial soils: it’s sharp, dusty, and jagged; it’s full of glassy globs from meteorite impacts; and its chemical composition has been altered by constant bombardment from solar wind. In short, lunar regolith is strange and alien stuff. 

So why would multiple companies go out of their way to simulate it? Because as more governments and private companies take an interest in lunar missions (you might have watched Artemis 1 finally lift off recently!), they all need to test their hardware here on Earth. They need to know how their landers and rovers and spacesuits are going to stand up to terrain that’s basically covered with dusty shards of glass. Carting barrels of actual regolith back from the Moon isn’t exactly practical, so a cottage industry has popped up to process terrestrial rocks and minerals into a family of lunar regolith simulants. They’re not perfect — no fancy lab process is likely to replicate millions of years’ worth of solar wind — but modern simulants are good enough for space agencies and private startups to set their lunar equipment up for success before it ever touches down on the Moon.

Fun fact number two: one of the simulant companies, Exolith Lab, lets you just… order their fake Moon dirt on the internet. So we did*! We examined both the raw materials and finished products in our studio and spoke to Exolith about how they make their simulant on a semi-industrial scale. We also tried our own demonstration involving a baking pan full of simulant and a model rocket — to see how that turned out, check out the video above. 

*Obligatory “don’t try this at home” disclaimer: because lunar regolith (real or simulated) is so dusty, it can actually be pretty hazardous if you inhale it. Exolith talked us through the proper safety precautions before we got our hands dirty. So, if you find yourself inspired to start your own regolith simulant collection, read up on safe handling first!

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