NASA To Buy Lunar Resources From Private Companies

NASA To Buy Lunar Resources From Private Companies

NASA wants to buy lunar resources mined by private sector companies by 2024. Companies do not have to physically deliver the material to NASA, just provide imagery showing they have it in their possession on the lunar surface. The point is to illustrate the U.S. position that space resource extraction and ownership by non-government entities is consistent with its obligations under the Outer Space Treaty and other international agreements.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine made the announcement in a blog post just before speaking at the 2nd Summit on Space Sustainability sponsored by the Secure World Foundation. Pointing to President Trump’s April 2020 Executive Order on space resources and the Artemis program to return humans to the Moon by 2024, Bridenstine said “leveraging commercial involvement as part of Artemis will enhance our ability to safely return to the Moon in a sustainable, innovative, and affordable fashion.”

The goal is for the material to be extracted and ownership transferred to NASA by 2024, the same date that humans would land there if the Artemis program meets its goal. That deadline was chosen because it is the last year of a Trump presidency if he wins reelection.

During his talk, Bridenstine said NASA will purchase 50-500 grams of material for $15,000-$25,000. More than one award may be made. A NASA spokesperson later declined to reveal the total amount of money available, however, telling such information “could influence the proposals.”

The money will come from the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

Bridenstine said the solicitation is not limited to U.S. companies, but the NASA spokesperson added that awards would have to “comply with any applicable restrictions on doing business with foreign proposers.” That probably eliminates China because of the “Wolf amendment” restrictions that require any bilateral NASA-China space cooperation to meet certain tests and be approved in advance by Congress.

Extracting and utilizing local resources — In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) — on the Moon and elsewhere in the solar system is considered essential to any plans for human expansion into space.  It would be cost-prohibitive to launch everything needed to support human outposts from Earth.

Bridenstine said all actions will be transparent and comply with U.S. international obligations.

When considering such proposals, we will require that all actions be taken in a transparent fashion, in full compliance with the Registration Convention, Article II and other provisions of the Outer Space Treaty, and all of our other international obligations.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) prohibits claims of national sovereignty in space, but the extent to which that applies to non-government entities is a matter of debate. Governments that are parties to the treaty must authorize and continually supervise activities of their non-government entities, but whether that limits private sector ownership of resources extracted from a celestial body — not ownership of the celestial body itself — has been debated for years in international space law circles and the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Another international space treaty, the 1979 Moon Treaty, further addresses the issue of space resources, but the United States is not a signatory.

The United States made its position clear — that private ownership of space resources is OK — beginning with the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. Driven by companies interested in mining asteroids, the legislation grants property rights to U.S. companies that extract resources from asteroids or other space objects.

The April 2020 Executive Order went further, explicitly stating that the United States rejects the 1979 Moon Treaty and is not interested in writing any new space treaty.  Instead it directs the Secretary of State to “encourage international support for the public and private recovery and use” of space resources by negotiating joint statements and bilateral and multilateral agreements.

This article has been updated several times.

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