A brilliant idea hatched in a University of Central Florida research lab has grown into a thriving company directly affecting space exploration. Some of the equipment that will arrive on the Moon and the procedures that will be utilized to grow food and construct shelter are likely to have been evaluated first on experimental soil created right here at UCF.
So far this year, UCF’s Exolith Lab has created and exported 25 tons of artificial extraterrestrial soil. Customers comprise NASA and commercial companies in the United States and worldwide, who use the soil to test equipment for expeditions to the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. University researchers are also using the material to test tactics they are creating to address several issues that astronauts face, such as discovering sustainable means to produce food on other planets. Even K-12 schools are customers because the material is used to educate children with hands-on science experiences to develop their interest in STEM.
“It’s definitely increased since we began,” says Zoe Landsman ’11’ 17PhD, the Lab’s head scientist and a UCF physics graduate. “We are not the only university doing this, but we are the only one doing it at this scale.” In 2018, the lab’s first year of operation, less than half a ton of experimental dirt was made and exported. According to Anna Metke ‘19, head of operations, the lab generated 5 tons in 2020 and is almost 25 tons halfway through 2021.
Because of the increased demand, the lab is entirely self-sufficient. The lab charges somewhere between $35 and $55 per kilogram, with certain customized versions costing an extra $5 per ounce. The money is put back into the lab. The Moon, Mars, and asteroids all have different types of dirt, just like Earth, which has sandy, rocky, and clay sections. According to Landsman, an engineering team would need “softer” imitation moon dirt depending on the data accessible about the Moon to evaluate the tire layout of a rover bound for the Moon’s south pole. The dirt would be different if they were aiming at a different section of the Moon.
Depending on the needs of the client, the lab develops a variety of simulants. Landsman collaborates with clients who require special orders and offers more than ten possibilities.
Exolith was developed in Physics Professor Dan Britt’s lab with the help of a NASA small business award and a commercial venture called Deep Space Industries. Britt and Kevin Cannon, a postdoctoral researcher, devised a scientifically sound, consistent method for simulating Martian and the asteroid regolith (commonly known as soil).
The team’s findings were published in scholarly journals, offering a high-fidelity standard for scientists all across the world. Deep Space Industries exited the simulant industry, and UCF stepped in as a non-profit utility to the space exploration community to fill the need. Since then, demand and production have constantly been increasing.