The space agency has announced an initiative to mine lunar resources, in which it has promised to buy lunar regolith extracted by private companies. Nasa hopes that this will help establish international standards for behaviour in space.
Nasa is looking for lunar regolith (the rock and dirt covering the rocky surface) from anywhere on the Moon. Under contracts with varying terms, the companies would mine on the Moon and sell the resources directly to Nasa without having to bring the resources back to Earth, instead simply providing imagery of the materials and confirming their location.
Nasa has asked private companies to offer proposals under the new initiative. It anticipates paying around $15,000-$25,000 for 50-500g of material, although companies will be able to set prices in their bids. Bidding will be open to companies all around the world as part of an effort to “encourage international support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law”.
Speaking during an event hosted by the Secure World Foundation, a think tank, Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “The bottom line is we are going to buy some lunar soil for the purpose of demonstrating it can be done.” He said that Nasa would eventually buy other types of valuable lunar resources, such as lunar ice.
Bridenstine wrote in a blog post that this initiative is part of Nasa’s goal of setting “norms of behaviour” in space and allowing private extraction of materials on the Moon to allow future astronaut missions to “live off the land”, such as by using ice to create rocket fuel or using Moon rock to construct landing pads. These standards of behaviour for extraction of lunar materials would be comparable to standards for extraction of materials from the oceans, he said.
He argued that the plans would not violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which is the foundation of international space law. Among the treaty’s key points is that no nation may claim sovereignty of outer space or any celestial body.
Casey Dreier, a space policy advisor at the Planetary Society, wrote on Twitter: “The importance of this announcement is not so much the financial incentive (which is tiny) but in establishing the legal precedent that private companies can collect and sell celestial materials (with the explicit blessing of Nasa/US gov).”
As part of Nasa’s ambitious Artemis program – which aims to send a crewed mission to the south pole of the Moon by 2024 to establish a lunar presence before aiming for Mars – Nasa hopes to help establish international standards for lunar exploration through proposals such as the Artemis Accords, a legal framework for governing behaviour of public and private entities on the Moon.
In 2015, US President Barack Obama signed a law allowing US companies the rights to any resources they mine on celestial bodies such as asteroids.