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Crowdfunding campaign lets you snag simulated moon dirt — but handle with care

Alan Boyle
Off Planet Research makes simulated moon dirt by the bagful. (Off Planet Research Photo)

Wanna buy some fake moon dirt? Off Planet Research, which manufactures loads of the stuff, is making it available for public consumption — but make sure you don’t eat it or breathe it in.

The research facility in Lacey, Wash., specializes in making types of soil that simulate what’s found on the lunar surface. Off Planet mixes up blends of earthly ingredients, including crushed rock, so that students and scientists can learn how humans and their hardware would fare in the lunar environment.

Two main varieties of lunar simulants are on the menu: a dark-colored blend that reflects the composition of the lunar lowlands, or maria, and a lighter-colored type of soil that mimics the moon’s highlands.

Off Planet also makes a frosty concoction that blends water ice and soil, based on findings from NASA’s LCROSS impact experiment. That simulant, OPRFLCROSS1, can be used to test equipment designed to extract water on the moon.

To ensure quality control, Off Planet typically rents its soil rather than selling it. Institutional users pay a monthly charge of $50 to $300 per kilogram, depending on the type of simulant, said Lauren Roux, one of the company’s researchers. “We expect the material to come back,” she told GeekWire.

The European Space Agency is Off Planet’s biggest customer. “ESA has quite a bit of our simulant that they’re running through,” Roux said.

Now the company is giving out limited quantities of its simulants as rewards for Indiegogo contributions. For as little as $99, contributors can get a vial of simulant, with their choice of lowland or highland dirt, plus a T-shirt.

A $299 contribution will get you a “Zen garden” with fake moon dirt and either basalt or anorthosite rocks (from Earth, not the moon). And for $999, you can get a plant-growing experiment, complete with pots that contain two types of simulant plus earthly dirt for comparison.

Off Planet is aiming to raise $30,000 by December. The money will help Off Planet’s researchers expand their lab space, upgrade their equipment, attend conferences and provide support to the scientific community.

Making moon dirt, also known as lunar regolith, isn’t merely a matter of mixing up garden-variety soil. Dirt gets weathered by the action of wind and water on Earth, but not on the moon. As a result, lunar soil particles tend to be sharp and splintered. To reproduce those characteristics on Earth, Off Planet has to grind up basalt and other types of rock for mixing.

“It takes a lot of specialized crushing to make sure it’s like the regolith on the moon,” Roux said.

Because of its abrasive qualities, actual moon dirt can be bad for your health. Like asbestos or volcanic ash, moon dust can penetrate deep into the lungs. The dark dust that the Apollo moonwalkers carried back in with them irritated their eyes and their airways, causing a condition known as “lunar hay fever.”

Prolonged exposure to the dust could lead to more serious respiratory conditions, ranging from bronchitis to elevated cancer risk, researchers report.

Vials of simulated moon dirt serve as rewards in a crowdfunding campaign. (Off Planet Research Photo)

The potential health risk is one reason why experimenters want to study the characteristics of lunar simulant, and it’s also a reason why Off Planet has been careful about distributing the simulated stuff to the general public. One of Off Planet’s founders, Vince Roux (Lauren’s father), compares moon dust’s potential effect to “playing in a sandbox with razor blades.”

Other companies in the simulant business take a similarly cautious approach. For example, Exolith Lab — a venture associated with the University of Central Florida’s Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science — sells soils that simulate dirt from the moon, Mars or asteroids for $20 a kilogram. But those products are sold only to institutions, including NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and not to private individuals.

If fake moon dirt just isn’t good enough, it’s possible to buy the real thing. But it’ll cost you. Last year, an Apollo 11 sample bag that contained mere traces of moon dust was auctioned off for $1.8 million. Moon meteorites draw a premium as well: Last week, a fragmented 12-pound lunar meteorite sold for more than $600,000.

On the other end of the spectrum, you could buy a bit of moon rock enclosed in a display box for as little as $40 from the likes of LunarLand.com. But calling it a “rock” would be a stretch. The company says its lunar meteorite specimens weigh about 12 milligrams — which is roughly the weight of a coarse grain of sand. That’s one small step for rock collecting, one giant leap for marketing.

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