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NASA Wants to Buy Lunar Soil Samples From Private Companies

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
September 10, 2020
Illustration of Artemis astronauts on the Moon. (Credits: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In an ambitious attempt to establish the right to own extraterrestrial resources, NASA has announced it will purchase lunar soil and rocks from private companies that collect them on the moon. And they don’t even have to return the samples to Earth.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine outlined the plan in a blog post.

The requirements we’ve outlined are that a company will collect a small amount of Moon “dirt” or rocks from any location on the lunar surface, provide imagery to NASA of the collection and the collected material, along with data that identifies the collection location, and conduct an “in-place” transfer of ownership of the lunar regolith or rocks to NASA. After ownership transfer, the collected material becomes the sole property of NASA for our use.

NASA has published a solicitation for commercial companies to provide proposals for the collection of space resources.

“The solicitation creates a full and open competition, not limited to U.S. companies, and the agency may make one or more awards, Bridenstine wrote. “NASA’s payment is exclusively for the lunar regolith, with any awardee receiving 10 percent at award, 10 percent upon launch, and the remaining 80 percent upon successful completion.”

The new effort is closely tied in with NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land two astronauts at the south pole of the moon in 2024 and to establish a permanent presence there.

“Over the next decade, the Artemis program will lay the foundation for a sustained long-term presence on the lunar surface and use the Moon to validate deep space systems and operations before embarking on the much farther voyage to Mars,” Bridenstine wrote.

“The ability to conduct in-situ resources utilization (ISRU) will be incredibly important on Mars, which is why we must proceed with alacrity to develop techniques and gain experience with ISRU on the surface of the Moon,” he added.

The new initiative is bound to be controversial. The Trump Administration believes the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 allows for private ownership of space resources.

However, the issue is by no means settled. A Canadian space institute is leading an effort to create a United Nations agreement governing the ownership and use of extraterrestrial resources.

Bridenstine said the lunar sample initiative is in line with the Trump Administration’s Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources.

The U.S. government has also issued the Artemis Accords, a set of guidelines for the international exploration and development of outer space that it is asking other countries to adopt.

You can read Bridenstine’s full blog post here.