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4 Dec, 2020 21:41

$1 for Moon dust: NASA selects four companies to collect lunar soil samples ahead of Artemis mission

$1 for Moon dust: NASA selects four companies to collect lunar soil samples ahead of Artemis mission

NASA has struck deals with four private enterprises involving collection of Moon soil, including a contract involving a cost of just one dollar, to further its understanding of the Moon’s resources, the US space agency has said.

All the four contracts involve collecting a small amount of lunar soil, which is essentially dust known as regolith, and proving images of the operation to NASA. The ownership of the collected samples is also to be transferred to the US space agency.

The partners selected by NASA for the mission involve two American companies – Lunar Outpost of Golden, Colorado and Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California – as well as ispace Japan of Tokyo and ispace Europe from Luxembourg. Contract fees awarded to the companies by NASA range between $ 15,000 for Masten Space Systems and just one dollar in the case of Lunar Outpost.

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Three out of four companies are expected to carry out the materials collection during an unmanned Moon landing mission to Earth satellite’s south pole in 2023, while another one is scheduled to do so during another unmanned landing mission in 2022.

"I think it's kind of amazing that we can buy lunar regolith from four companies for a total of $25,001," said Phil McAlister, director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Headquarters.

A statement by NASA also said that the companies were selected on a basis of their ability to “satisfactorily” meet the necessary requirements, starting with the “lowest-priced” among the acceptable proposals. Still, it remains to be seen how Lunar Outpost completes its mission for just one dollar.

The yet-to-be-collected soil samples are part of NASA’s more ambitious plans, as the space agency seeks to use them to explore the potential of utilizing the Moon’s resources to satisfy the needs of sustainable human exploration of the Earth’s satellite – and probably even expanding its understanding of challenges humans are about to face during manned Mars exploration.

"We must learn to generate our own water, air and even fuel," Mike Gold, NASA’s acting associate administrator for international and interagency relations, told AFP. "Living off the land will enable ambitious exploration activities that will result in awe inspiring science and unprecedented discoveries."

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"Human mission to Mars will be even more demanding and challenging than our lunar operations, which is why it's so critical to learn from our experiences on the Moon and apply those lessons to Mars," he added.

Yet, the involvement of private companies in this mission also advances another of America’s goals – to open space up for somewhat commercial exploitation.
“We think it's very important to establish the precedent that the private sector entities can extract, can take these resources but NASA can purchase and utilize them,” Gold said.

Opening up space for commercial use have been captivating the minds of politicians and businessmen for quite some time. Back in 2018, Goldman Sachs predicted that the world’s first trillionaire would be someone who mines asteroids.

But the existing international agreement – the 1967 Outer Space Treaty – says that celestial bodies and the Moon are “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” It also says that governments are essentially responsible for any actions by both governmental and non-governmental entities in space.

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This fact did not stop a host of nations, including the US, China, Japan, India and Russia, from developing national legislations legalizing extraterrestrial appropriation of resources. So far, however, NASA stated that all planned missions would be “in full compliance with the Registration Convention, Article II, and other provisions of the Outer Space Treaty.”

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