Precedent setting moon sampling mission
NASA offers lunar sampling contract to private sector bidders Metal Tech News – September 16, 2020
Last updated 9/17/2020 at 4:17am
NASA wants to buy Moon rocks from a private space miner able to fly up and grab an up to 1.1-pound lunar sample and deliver it to the space agency by 2024. The space administration is not particular about where the moon rocks are collected, or the content of the samples, as long as the mission is well documented, and the dirt is delivered to NASA on the Moon for payment.
This lunar sampling is meant to set the stage for NASA's Artemis program, which aims to "land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before."
An Artemis Moon base would be a launching pad for NASA's vision of journeying deeper into the Solar System.
"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," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to work in cooperation with private companies and other countries in its endeavors to establish a human presence on the Moon and Solar System beyond.
Bridenstine says, "leveraging commercial involvement as part of Artemis will enhance our ability to safely return to the Moon in a sustainable, innovative, and affordable fashion."
Private and public space explorers, however, need to know that they can extract the materials needed to support future space missions.
A 1979 United Nations treaty known as the "Moon Agreement" considers celestial bodies global commons under which all Earth countries would share in any benefits derived from space resources.
While 18, mostly Earth-bound, countries signed onto the Moon Agreement, none of the spacefaring nations have. These non-signing countries include the U.S., most European Union states, Japan, China, and Russia. This weak participation has called into question the relevancy of the treaty.
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that aims to clarify the rules for extracting the resources needed to travel to, live and work on the Moon, Mars and beyond.
"The United States is not a party to the Moon Agreement," Trump inked in the executive order. "Further, the United States does not consider the Moon Agreement to be an effective or necessary instrument to guide nation states regarding the promotion of commercial participation in the long-term exploration, scientific discovery, and use of the Moon, Mars, or other celestial bodies."
This gets to main reason NASA is soliciting bids for Moon samples.
"Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law," according to the order signed by Trump on April 6.
The excavation of Moon dirt by a private company and selling it to NASA would set a precedent, both historically and legally.
"We know a supportive policy regarding the recovery and use of space resources is important to the creation of a stable and predictable investment environment for commercial space innovators and entrepreneurs," said Bridenstine.
NASA is already working with three U.S. companies – Blue Origin, Dynetics, SpaceX – to develop lunar landers for the Artemis program.
While these three private American firms are all good candidates for flying up and collecting a moon sample for NASA, the space agency said the contract is open to international bidders.
The Trump administration sees the need for international cooperation on space endeavors and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with negotiating agreements with other countries on "safe and sustainable operations for the public and private recovery and use of space resources."
In addition to setting a precedent on the private recovery of space resources, the moon sampling mission would prepare humans for their next extraterrestrial destination.
"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," said Bridenstine. "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."
The ability to conduct in-situ resources utilization starts with collecting a small sample of Moon dirt from anywhere on the lunar surface, and delivering imagery of the collection, data that identifies the sampling location, and transfer of ownership of the moon rocks to NASA.
CORRECTION: The location of the delivery of samples has been corrected to Moon. An earlier version indicated the samples are to be delivered to NASA on Earth.