NASA Picks U.S., Japanese Companies for Lunar Soil Collection

NASA Picks U.S., Japanese Companies for Lunar Soil Collection

NASA today announced the winners of contracts to collect lunar soil and transfer ownership to the U.S. government while the samples are still on the lunar surface. The initiative is not designed to bring samples back to Earth or even collect anything of scientific value, but to underscore U.S. policy that ownership of resources on the Moon or elsewhere in the solar system does not contravene U.S. obligations under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

The companies are required to collect samples of lunar regolith — rocks and soil — on the Moon and send back pictures and location data to NASA.  Upon receipt, NASA will pay the companies and take ownership, demonstrating that space resources can be mined and owned without violating the Outer Space Treaty’s prohibition on claims of national sovereignty.  The United States is not claiming ownership of the Moon, only of its resources.

Four awards were made, two to U.S. companies, Lunar Outpost and Masten Space Systems, and the other two to a Japanese company, ispace Tokyo, and its European subsidiary, ispace Europe in Luxembourg.

NASA imposed no requirements about what type of material must be collected and has no plans for what to do with it.  The point is to demonstrate the policy principles of space resource collection and ownership.

President Trump signed an Executive Order earlier this year making clear that the United States considers commercial exploration, recovery and use of resources in space to be consistent with existing international law.  In 2015, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) that included a provision granting property rights to U.S. companies that mine asteroids and other space resources.

NASA’s Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development Phil McAlister told reporters today that 22 proposals were received from 16-17 companies for the lunar soil solicitation announced in September. The primary criteria for deciding the winners were technical feasibility and cost. Eight met those requirements.

NASA did quite well on cost, signing all four agreements for a total of $25,001.

Lunar Outpost, based in Golden, CO, asked for only $1 dollar. It plans to ride along on a Blue Origin mission to the Moon’s South Pole in 2023 according to NASA, but CNBC reported that Blue Origin disputed that and Lunar Outpost’s CEO clarified they are in talks with several companies.

The company itself did not mention any partners in its press release.

Each of the two ispace proposals were for $5,000.  The ispace Japan proposal is to collect samples in 2022 and ispace Europe in 2023.  The company has designed its own lunar lander, Hakuto, and said the awards are part of its Hakuto Reboot (Hakuto-R) project.  Hakuto was one of the finalists in the Google Lunar X-PRIZE competition that was terminated in 2018 without a winner.

Masten’s was the highest cost at $15,000.  Masten already has a Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract with NASA to deliver payloads to the Moon for NASA in 2022, but this is for a mission in 2023.

Each gets 10 percent of the money up front and McAlister said, yes, that means NASA will cut a check for 10 cents to Lunar Outpost, the $1 bidder.

Asked about making awards to non-U.S. companies, McAlister and Acting Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations Mike Gold said they saw no reason to limit the competition to U.S.-only bids.  In fact, including ispace Japan and ispace Europe demonstrates other U.S. principles like American leadership and the value of partnerships, they argued.

Four of the 22 proposals were from non-U.S. companies and perhaps one other whose ownership was unclear, McAlister said.

These awards are part of NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface and begin a sustainable program of lunar exploration and utilization with commercial and international partners.  NASA is asking countries that want to join the Artemis program to sign bilateral agreements called the Artemis Accords. Gold said that was not a prerequisite to win one of these contracts, but Japan and Luxembourg are, in fact, among the countries that have signed them.

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