The announcement is yet another step in NASA’s Artemis project to set up a permanent presence on and around the moon and eventually go to Mars, where astronauts would need to be able to use the resources there.
“When considering such proposals, we will require that all actions be taken in a transparent fashion,” he wrote. “We are putting our policies into practice to fuel a new era of exploration and discovery that will benefit all of humanity.”
Bidding for the program would be open not just to U.S. companies but international ones as well as part of an effort to “encourage International support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law.”
The move comes a few months after NASA unveiled a legal framework, called the “Artemis Accords,” to govern the behavior of countries and companies on the lunar surface, including the creation of “safety zones” around mining and exploration sites. The accords would require signatories to publicly release ‘the extent and general nature of operations taking place within the safety zones “while taking into account appropriate protection of business, confidential, national security, and export controlled information.”
NASA is scrambling to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 under an accelerated schedule mandated by the White House. But instead of going to the equatorial region of the moon that astronauts visited during the Apollo program, NASA this time wants to send them to the south pole of the moon where there is water in the form of ice in permanently shadowed craters.
Water is a valuable resource not just for life, but also, when broken into its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen, could serve as propellant for rockets, allowing exploration deeper into space.
Under the solicitation announced Thursday, NASA said it is looking for lunar “regolith,” rocks and dirt from any location on the lunar surface. The companies would be required to provide imagery of the material and the location from which it was recovered.
In the blog post, Bridenstine said that NASA would “publicly release our data” and that the “scientific discoveries gained through robust, sustainable and safe lunar exploration will benefit all of humanity.”
In 2015, President Obama signed a law allowing U.S. companies the rights to any material they mine on celestial bodies. But under the proposal announced Thursday, the companies would transfer ownership of the regolith to NASA.
“Next-generation lunar science and technology is a main objective for returning to the moon and preparing for Mars,” Bridenstine wrote in the blog post.
A human mission to Mars, in particular, would require the use of resources mined from the surface, a process known as in-situ utilization. That’s why NASA said it must proceed “with alacrity to develop techniques and gain experience with [in-situ utilization] on the surface of the moon.”
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