NASA has set out to “fuel a new era of exploration and discovery” with plans to mine material from the lunar surface.
The US space agency plans to return people to the Moon by 2024, ahead of plans to venture further out into the solar system. Yesterday (10 September), administrator Jim Bridenstine released a ‘solicitation’ for commercial companies to provide proposals for the collection of space resources.
“We are putting our policies into practice to fuel a new era of exploration and discovery that will benefit all of humanity,” he wrote on the NASA website.
The requirements are for a company to collect a small amount of lunar ‘regolith’, dirt or rocks from the Moon’s surface. The company would then provide images of the collected material and tell NASA where to find it, before transferring ownership over to the agency. Methods of retrieving the materials will be determined “at a later date”.
The solicitation aims for the collection and transfer of ownership before 2024, and is open to companies around the world. The agency could award more than one contract.
Companies which have previously proposed lunar mining techniques include multinational Ispace, which has demonstrated a prototype rover for the identification and mapping of sub-surface water resources. Robot ‘swarms’ could follow the rovers to extract the water.
Other potential applicants include Moon Express, which was the first company to receive US approval to send a robotic spacecraft to the Moon in 2016. It has plans for three expeditions, culminating in ‘Harvest Moon’, which it said would begin “the business phase of lunar resource prospecting”.
“Next-generation lunar science and technology is a main objective for returning to the Moon and preparing for Mars,” said Bridenstine. “Over the next decade, the Artemis programme will lay the foundation for a sustained long-term presence on the lunar surface and use the Moon to validate deep space systems and operations before embarking on the much farther voyage to Mars. The ability to conduct in-situ resources utilisation (ISRU) will be incredibly important on Mars, which is why we must proceed with alacrity to develop techniques and gain experience with ISRU on the surface of the Moon.”
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