By Alexandra Witze
James Carpenter just needed some fake Moon dirt. Carpenter, a lunar-exploration expert at the European Space Agency (ESA) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, works on a drill designed to hunt for buried ice on the Moon. His team recently ordered half a tonne of powdery material to replicate the lunar surface from a commercial supplier in the United States. But what showed up was not what the team was expecting. “The physical properties were visibly different,” says Carpenter.
His experience underscores a longstanding problem with artificial space soils, known as simulants: how to make them consistently and reliably. But now there is a fresh effort to bring the field into line. Last month, NASA established a team of scientists from eight of its research centres to analyse the physical properties and availability of existing simulants. And, for the first time, an asteroid-mining company in Florida is making scientifically accurate powders meant to represent the surfaces of four classes of asteroid. It delivered its second batch to NASA on 28 June.
“NASA is trying to conquer the Wild West of simulants,” says Philip Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
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