As NASA engineers and astronauts prepare to explore the moon and Mars, they first need to practice on Earth. One of the best tools they can use is materials to simulate the soil, or regolith, they will land on. For the first time, lunar and Martian simulants are now also available to the public.
As NASA engineers and astronauts prepare to explore the moon and Mars, they first need to practice on Earth. One of the best tools they can use is materials to simulate the soil, or regolith, they will land on.
Orbital Technologies Corporation (ORBITEC) has been working with NASA since 2005 on the development of improved lunar and Martian soil simulants. This year alone they have delivered over 45,000 pounds of lunar regolith simulant, known as JSC-1A, and Martian soil simulant, known as JSC-Mars-1A, to engineers and scientists studying mining equipment, robotic vehicles, next generation space suits, habitats, plant growth and dust mitigation.
Along the way, they have also been contacted by over 100 students, teachers, librarians and toy developers that want a sample of fake moon and Mars dirt as well.
"These simulants are really a great way to get a feel for another planet," said Marty Gustafson, ORBITEC's project manager for lunar and Martian simulant production. "Kids tend to be fascinated by them, asking question after question about life in space. It really brings science to a new level when they can hold it in their hand."
Because the demand for simulants has been so high, ORBITEC helped produce extra material for sale to the general public. There are currently five tons of Martian simulant for sale at www.planet-llc.com, and lunar simulant will be for sale by January.
In addition to simulants, ORBITEC has developed the Astro Garden, one of NASA's Education Payloads that went into space with Astronaut Barbara Morgan on Space Shuttle Endeavour on August 8. Built as a miniature garden for growing flowers, herbs and small vegetables in orbit with minimal resources, the Astro Garden's ground version, or "Space Garden" will be used as part of NASA's national engineering design challenge for students in grades K-12 throughout the school year. Using their own growth chambers, students will conduct science experiments with basil seeds flown in space and now available for schools. More information about Space Gardens is available on their website.
Both the Space Garden and Astro Garden are a continuation of ORBITEC's work with controlled environments. The company's Biomass Production System spent 73 days in orbit on the International Space Station in 2002.
Headquartered in Madison, ORBITEC is Wisconsin's aerospace research and product development leader, proving strong in the use of the Small Business Innovative Research Program as a catalyst for technology and product development.
ORBITEC has been awarded over 180 government contracts exceeding a total of over $125M. Most of ORBITEC's current activities and revenue base are technology developments and implementations that have evolved from the SBIR program. ORBITEC was awarded Wisconsin's Professional Service Business of the Year (1995), and the Tibbitts Award (1996 and 1999) from the Small Business Administration for outstanding work for the U.S. Government.
ORBITEC's sister company, PLANET LLC, provides an outlet to commercial markets for ORBITEC's advanced space technologies. In return, PLANET's products have had continuous access to ORBITEC's experienced research team to support future developments and improvements. Current products include LED lighting systems for controlled environments, the Space Garden educational plant growth chamber, Hypercosm web-based 3D software and lunar and Martian regolith simulant.