NASA announced Thursday that it plans to purchase lunar soil from a commercial company, an effort the agency’s top official said is intended to set a precedent for the transfer of ownership of extraterrestrial material and stimulate a market that collects resources from bodies throughout the solar system.
The initiative is starting small, but NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said Thursday that it could lead to companies being able to mine the lunar soil for ice water, precious metals and other resources.
“We are interested in commercially purchasing lunar soil,” Bridenstine said Thursday in a virtual presentation at the Secure World Foundation’s Space Sustainability Summit. “So we want a commercial company to go to the moon, mine some lunar soil, and then … NASA can take it.”
“We’re buying the regolith, but we’re really doing it to show that it can be done, that the resources mined from the moon are actually owned by the people who invest their sweat, their treasure and their equity in this endeavor,” he said. said Bridenstine.
NASA’s effort to buy lunar soil from a commercial company has its roots in a law passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in 2015, Bridenstine said. The law allows private individuals to mine, possess and exploit water, minerals and other materials collected from the moon.
Bridenstine said NASA’s goal of promoting a commercial market for moon mining complies with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, an international agreement ratified by 110 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, China and Russia.
The Outer Space Treaty says: “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation for claim of sovereignty, for use or occupation, or by any other means.”
Bridenstine said NASA believes in the Outer Space Treaty, but NASA wants to “allow for a normalization process” to show that extraterrestrial resources can be mined and owned.
“We believe … that we cannot appropriate the moon for national sovereignty,” he said. “And this is definitely not what we intend to do.
“But we believe we can extract and use the resources from the moon, just like we can extract and use the tuna from the ocean,” Bridenstine said. “We don’t own the ocean. But if you apply your hard work, your work and your investment to get the tuna out of the ocean, you can own the tuna from the ocean and that becomes a very valuable resource for humanity.”
“And so the question is: is it possible to have property rights for the resources extracted without appropriating the moon or other celestial bodies for national sovereignty? And I think the answer is definitely yes. “
Through the Artemis program, NASA is planning to land astronauts on the moon for the first time since 1972. Last year, the Trump administration ordered NASA to land a crew near the moon’s south pole before the end of the 2024, four years before NASA’s previous program to bring astronauts back to the lunar surface.
NASA wants the Artemis program to lead to a longer-lasting human presence on the moon than the Apollo program, which ended in the 1970s. To make the Artemis program last, NASA says crews or robots will eventually have to extract and use resources, such as frozen water, from the moon, instead of bringing all the materials required by Earth.
“How do we create a sustainable program? We have to use water ice, hundreds of millions of tons of water ice on the moon, “Bridenstine said.” It’s air to breathe, it’s water to drink, “and it can even be converted into rocket fuel, she said.
“So all of this is available in hundreds of millions of tons on the moon’s south pole, we need to be able to use that as a resource,” he said.
Precious metals can also be mined from the moon, along with helium-3, which could be used as an energy source.
Bridenstine called the issue of non-partisan extraterrestrial mining, but the exploitation of the resources of other planetary organisms raised concerns.
“Moving forward on resource extraction without explicitly stating how we intend to make the future in space different from the past on Earth is a recipe for repeating history that is shameful and environmentally destructive,” tweeted Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society.
Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame, has expressed support for NASA’s new initiative on lunar soil. But he tweeted that environmental impact statements, a standard part for many construction projects in the United States, should be a first step for proposals to extract and use the moon’s resources.
“There is no risk that companies will extract the moon from the moon and ruin it until closer to the year 2100, because there are no valuable resources on the moon that you can sell on Earth,” tweeted Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida whose research experience includes planetary soil sampling. “You can buy everything on Earth a million times cheaper.
“Second, we don’t have the technology to mine the moon on a large scale,” Metzger added. “Technological development * alone * will likely take 30 to 40 years to make a large-scale lunar mining venture economically viable. The key will be to reduce the need for humans to stand up to repair broken robots. “
President Trump signed an executive order in April outlining a policy that the United States does not see space as a “global common good.” The order strengthened the 2015 law signed by President Obama that gives US citizens and businesses the right to mine and exploit resources collected by other bodies in space.
The policy runs counter to the 1979 Moon Treaty, which states that the moon and its natural resources are the “common heritage of humanity”. The Moon Treaty adds that an international framework is needed to govern the exploitation of lunar resources “when such exploitation is about to become feasible.”
But only 18 nations are parties to the 1979 Moon Treaty, which was not signed or ratified by the United States, China or Russia.
Bridenstine said on Friday that NASA wants to ensure there is a “strong legal framework based on international law” that allows individuals and companies to pursue private interests on the moon.
“What we are trying to do is make sure there is a rule of conduct that says resources can be mined and that we are doing it in a way that is compliant with the Space Treaty,” Bridenstine said. “And we’re doing it in a way that people can’t interfere with your efforts to mine those resources.”
Earlier this year, NASA outlined the Artemis Accords, principles that the agency’s international partners should follow in lunar exploration. The principles include the peaceful exploration of the moon, transparency, interoperability, the promise of emergency assistance, the registration of space objects and the release of scientific data to the public.
“These rules of conduct … eventually become a binding international law,” Bridenstine said. “This is a path that must be charted, and I think the United States of America must lead here, and therefore those rules of conduct will ultimately inform international law that will make space sustainable in the long term.”
Some scientists have questioned how NASA will implement planetary protection guidelines in an era of mining and other loosely regulated commercial activities in space. Planetary protection focuses on preventing spacecraft, and ultimately humans, from interfering with areas that could host extraterrestrial life. The guidelines are stricter on worlds like Mars than on the moon.
In July, NASA announced that it was running out of planetary protection requirements for missions that land on most locations on the lunar surface. The areas around the poles, which are home to water ice, and the historic Apollo landing sites will remain under a higher category of planetary protection.
Bridenstine said Thursday that although NASA is not a regulatory agency, it can set expectations for private companies.
“If you want to be with us when we go to the moon, if you want to be a private company that can have NASA as a client, if you want to be with us when we go to Mars, then there are some behaviors that you have to adhere to,” Bridenstine said.
The request for proposals released by NASA on Thursday is open to US and international companies. The proposals are due on October 9 and NASA may award one or more awards, according to Stephanie Schierholz, a spokesperson for the agency.
The companies that win the awards will collect lunar soil or rocks from anywhere on the moon and provide NASA with images of the collection and material collected, along with data identifying where the material was captured. The companies will then transfer ownership of the samples to NASA on site on the moon.
Bridenstine said Thursday that NASA plans to pay between $ 15,000 and $ 25,000 for between 50 and 500 grams of lunar soil. Final prices will be determined by the results of the competition, according to Schierholz.
If a company collects more than 500 grams, it could sell the rest to other countries, companies or individuals, Bridenstine said. And there may be further competitions for companies to harvest the lunar soil and sell it to NASA.
In 2018, NASA established the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program to organize a series of competitions for companies applying for contracts to transport scientific instruments to the moon. NASA has selected 14 US companies eligible for CLPS contracts, and so far the agency has awarded four robotic lunar landing missions.
The first CLPS missions – in development by Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines – are scheduled for launch to the moon in 2021.
Eligibility for the Lunar Soil Challenge announced on Thursday will not be limited to CLPS suppliers. Other US companies and international groups will be able to bid, Bridenstine said.
“What we are trying to do is establish the rules of conduct to create regulatory certainty so that companies out there can capitalize and move forward on these programs,” said Bridenstine. “We are trying to demonstrate the concept that resources can be mined and exchanged, and not just exchanged between companies or individuals, but also between countries and across borders.
“I would say the starting point is frozen water,” he said. “That’s where a lot of private companies will want to go get that water ice and then sell it to us as an agency or other private companies that are using the moon as a destination for all kinds of different capabilities.”
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