As part of Project Artemis, NASA intends to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024, in what will be the first crewed mission to the lunar since the Apollo Era. By the end of the decade, NASA also hopes to have all the infrastructure in place to create a program for “sustainable lunar exploration,” which will include the Lunar Gateway (a habitat in orbit) and the Artemis Base Camp (a habitat on the surface).
Part of this commitment entails the recovery and use of resources that are harvested locally, including regolith to create building materials and ice to create everything from drinking water to rocket fuel. To this end, NASA has asked its commercial partners to collect samples of lunar soil or rocks as part of a proof-of-concept demonstration of how they will scout and harvest natural resources and conduct commercial operations on the Moon.
The details were outlined in a Contract of Opportunity issued by NASA on Thursday, Sept. 10th (which will remain open until Oct. 9th). As they indicate in their solicitation, contractors will be required to develop a process for collecting 50 to 500 g (1.76 to 17.6 oz) of lunar regolith or rock materials from the lunar surface – including a detailed outline of the method, systems, and equipment involved.
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They will also be tasked with providing images of the collected material that identifies where on the surface it was obtained. The contractor will then conduct an “in-place” transfer of ownership with NASA, the transfer method will be determined at a later date. This sample retrieval will take place before the first crewed mission of the Artemis program (Artemis III), which is currently scheduled to launch in October of 2024.
The proposal is open to companies from within and outside the US and NASA is prepared to issue multiple awards. Payments will be made in instalments, with 10% paid up front, 10% upon launch, and the remaining 80% upon the successful completion of the mission. In a statement, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stressed that this project will be fully compliant with Article II of the Outer Space Treaty, which states:
“Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”
At the same time, Bridenstine emphasized that this solicitation builds upon the Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources (signed on April 6th, 2020), which establishes that it “shall be the policy of the United States to encourage international support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law.”
Other international treaties being observed include the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (aka. the Registration Convention). Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1974 (and entered into force by 1976), this convention requires states to provide the UN with detailed reports about the orbit of every object they send into space. As Bridenstine said in an official NASA statement:
“Next-generation lunar science and technology is a main objective for returning to the Moon and preparing for Mars. Over the next decade, the Artemis program 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 utilization (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.”
This solicitation is in keeping with NASA’s commitment to develop of technologies and methods that will allow for In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), a major component of NASA’s proposed return to the Moon. It’s also consistent with NASA’s growing reliance on the commercial space sector to provide crew and resupply services.
This is exemplified by the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), and Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). In the meantime, check out this NASA video outlining their solicitation:
Further Reading: NASA Blogs