Will Pay for Moon Dirt: NASA Seeks Space-Mining Ventures

NASA wants to buy some moon rocks, and it’s seeking companies to make space mining trips so that it can establish a legal framework for its galactic aspirations.

The agency is soliciting bids from explorers anywhere on Earth who are willing to finance their own trips to the moon and collect soil or rock samples without actually returning the material to earth. The effort is meant to set a legal precedent for mining on the lunar surface that would allow NASA to one day collect ice, helium or other materials useful to colonies on the moon and, eventually, Mars.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration also wants to demonstrate the potential for “in-situ resource utilization,” or using locally sourced materials for future space missions, it said Thursday. NASA anticipates paying roughly between $15,000 to $25,000 per moon contract, agency Administrator Jim Bridenstine said, though final pricing will be determined by the competition.

Activities beyond the earthly plane are currently governed by the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Signed by the U.S., it bars extraterrestrial military bases or nuclear weapons and basically requires nations to explore in peace and clean up their own messes.

In particular, the treaty stipulates that outer space isn’t subject to “national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” But it doesn’t specifically address space mining.

“It’s time for regulatory certainty to extract and trade space resources,” Bridenstine said in a tweet.

The winning bidder will collect up to 500 grams (1.1 pounds) of lunar material, photograph it, document its location and then “conduct an ‘in-place’ transfer of ownership of the lunar regolith or rocks to NASA,” the agency said in a blog post. NASA will sort out any retrieval plans for the material at a later date.

Likely Bidders

Among the likeliest contenders for handling a ride to the moon are six companies, including Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Astrobotic Technology Inc., that have already collected NASA contracts to land either cargo or astronauts on the lunar surface. NASA has selected three firms for each of those roles as part of its Artemis prrogam, which aims to land astronauts on the moon in 2024.

Astrobotic may choose to propose its own mission or fly one for a winning NASA bidder, John Thornton, chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh-based company, said Thursday. “We will be taking a hard look at this to make the economics work,” he said.

The company, which has been awarded about $300 million in U.S. contracts for lunar payloads, plans to fly its first trip in 2021. It charges customers $1.2 million per kilogram for a landing cargo on the moon. SpaceX did not reply to a message seeking comment.

NASA will pay only for the lunar material that’s transferred and contractors will be responsible for costs associated with the mission, NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said in an email.

India plans a second try at landing a rover on the moon after its first attempt failed in September 2019. A $100 million privately funded Israeli mission to land on the lunar surface failed in April 2019. In March 2018, Google and the XPrize Foundation ended its $30 million lunar competition after multiple private teams were unable to launch and land a small rover on the moon and to drive it at least 500 meters (1,640 feet).

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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