The latest reports reveal that NASA is seeking viable proposals from the private sector for scraping some bit of the Moon’s surface. The expectation is that one of the applicants will manage to collect a lump of regolith before NASA’s 2024 deadline for putting boots on the surface as announced by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Ensuring that the commercial sector is involved in the United States’ next grand adventure has been a target for NASA for many years. Interestingly, the Agency has had some significant successes with ISS supply freighters and, recently, a crew was launched in a SpaceX capsule. Bridenstine said:
“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.”
NASA Searches For Moon Rock Supplier
In that context, NASA has published [PDF] a request seeking quotations for the job of collecting 50 to 500g from the lunar surface. Rocks will also serve the purpose. The company that gets this job will also need to provide imagery of where these samples came from and also perform an “in-place ownership transfer from Contractor to NASA” after collection from the Moon.
Bridenstine said that what NASA does with the material after it is transferred from the Moon to the earth is up to the agency to determine. He added:
“The agency will determine retrieval methods for the transferred lunar regolith at a later date.”
A supportive policy detailing the recovery and use of space resources is important. Such a policy will help in the creation of a stable and predictable investment space for the commercial innovators.
If it appears to be vague, nobody will be held accountable. NASA only wants someone to send something to the Moon. The involved entity can also collect rocks and other samples and then hand them over to the Agency on the surface. The space agency will then take it from there.
This scope is quite wide. While NASA said that it will not pay for any development, production, or launch vehicle costs, it does not care about the location from which the materials are collected on the Moon.
The Agency will also not worry about the type of material collected since they will accept even ice. The contractor is supposed to deliver by 2024 and the time of delivery is left solely to them provided that they do not get late. The award is broken down into 10% after completing the concept review, 10% after launch and 80% upon mission completion is designed based on ‘low price, technically acceptable.’
NASA May Issue Many Awards
This plan is mainly aimed at kickstarting some form of a commercial market for Moon dirt. However, NASA is the only buyer in town for the moon dirt. The agency has dreams for in-situ resources utilization (ISRU) which is quite essential if it wants to avoid another Apollo-style flags and footprints affair.
The amounts are small when compared to the 382kg of lunar rocks, dirt and cores brought back during the Apollo program. Samples are distributed on an annual basis for education and research. Around 300g of lunar samples were also returned to Earth by Soviet spacecraft.
NASA now wants commercial companies to do the collecting this time around. Delivery “occurs on the lunar surface.”
Astrobotic is among the many companies that are already lined up to send a lander to the Moon under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Program. The Peregrine lander will fly atop ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket in 2021. Also, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Moon lander is scheduled to touch down on the Moon by 2024.