NASA has awarded contracts to four private companies to collect space resources and transfer ownership to the agency.
The contracts, confirmed on Thursday, mark the first-ever commercial transaction concerning the collection of lunar resources, as well as the first transaction for space resources to take place beyond Earth.
Prices for the moon regolith will range from $1 (€0.82) to $ 15,000 (€12,327) - the contracts are primarily intended to set a legal precedent for the exploitation of extraterrestrial resources by the private sector going forward.
"It's quite extraordinary that we can buy lunar regolith (material covering the bedrock of a planet) from four companies for a total of $25,001 (€20,546)," said Phil McAlister, head of this program at NASA.
How will the exchange work?
The companies will collect a small amount of lunar regolith from any location on the Moon. They will then provide imagery of the collection to NASA, as well as the material and data that identifies the location of the operation.
Following the collection of images and data, ownership of the lunar regolith will be transferred to NASA, becoming its sole property for the agency’s use under the Artemis program.
The companies that have been awarded the contracts are Lunar Outpost ($1 contract), ispace Japan and ispace Europe ($5,000 each), and Masten Space Systems ($15,000). NASA’s payment is exclusively for the lunar regolith.
The companies' collection robots will travel on already planned moon-landing missions, funded by entities other than NASA, which will land in 2022 and 2023.
Property rights outside of Earth
At this stage, NASA's main objective is to initiate a new phase of space exploration involving private companies. The agency will determine retrieval methods for the transferred lunar regolith at a later date.
The private sector is participating to find minerals and other resources, such as water, and to explore the possibilities of living and producing fuel outside of Earth, all while being legally protected.
"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 to fuel not only NASA's activities but a whole new dynamic era of public and private development and exploration on the Moon," said Mike Gold, senior NASA official in charge of international relations.
“Leveraging commercial involvement enhances our ability to safely return to the Moon in a sustainable, innovative, and affordable fashion,” added McAlister. “A supportive policy for the recovery and use of space resources provides a stable and predictable investment environment for commercial space innovators and entrepreneurs.”
The United States has said, in what it dubbed the Artemis Accords, that it reserves the right to create "safe zones" to protect activities on a celestial body. Artemis is the programme with which the country plans to return to the Moon with two astronauts in 2024.
Mike Gold assured that these new activities would be done "in compliance with the space treaty," adding, "it is important that America is a leader not only technologically, but also politically."
Companies were set to receive 10% of their total proposed price upon the awarding of the contracts, a further 10% at launch, and the remaining 80% upon successful completion of the project.