NASA has released a solicitation for commercial partners to submit proposals for the collection and return to Earth of Moon rocks. The agency intends to play no part in the collection of the samples and will retain 80 percent of the award fee until the samples are transferred to NASA.
Published on September 10, the Purchase of Lunar Regolith and/or Rock Materials from Contractor solicitation outlines the requirements commercial partners will need to fulfill to qualify.
At least 50 grams and as much as 500 grams of lunar regolith (dirt) and/or rocks will need to be collected. Commercial partners will need to document the collection and provide data on exactly where on the lunar surface the samples were collected from.
Unlike most other NASA contracts, the agency will retain 80 percent of the award fee until the successful completion of the mission. The remaining award fee will be split in two with 10 percent awarded with the contract and 10 percent once the mission has been launched.
Once the samples are returned to Earth and transferred to NASA, they will become “the sole property of NASA for use as NASA may determine.” However, in a September 10 blog post, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine made assurances that any data gleaned from studying the samples would be shared publicly.
“The scientific discoveries gained through robust, sustainable, and safe lunar exploration will benefit all of humanity,” wrote Bridenstine. “By continuing to publicly release our data, NASA will ensure the whole world joins us and benefits from the Artemis journey.”
Despite these assurances, many have already criticised NASA for unilaterally opening up the Moon for commercial colonisation. In a Twitter thread that began with “This is colonialism,” The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla cautioned against the privatisation of the Moon.
“Pressing forward on resource extraction without explicitly stating how we plan to make the future in space different from the past on Earth is a recipe to repeat [our] shameful, environmentally destructive history,” wroke Lakdawalla.
Currently, the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies is governed by the Outer Space Treaty. The treaty was introduced by the United States and the Soviet Union in June 1966 and was ratified by the United Nations on October 10, 1967.
According to Bridenstine, commercial partners selected to retrieve lunar samples will be required to be “in full compliance with the Registration Convention, Article II and other provisions of the Outer Space Treaty.”
The Registration Convention simply requires parties to register the launch of any objects into Earth orbit and beyond. Article II, however, talks more directly to what NASA is proposing.
Article II of the Outer Space Treaty 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.”
The article may, as a result, not apply to commercial entities with the language specifically stating “national appropriation.” This distinction will, however, be for legal experts to debate in the coming years.