NASA challenges companies to mine lunar soil
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NASA announced Thursday it plans to purchase lunar soil from a commercial company, an effort the agency’s top official said is intended to set a precedent for the transfer of ownership of extraterrestrial material and stimulate a market harvesting resources from bodies throughout the solar system.
The initiative is starting small, but NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Thursday it could lead to companies being able to mine lunar soil for water ice, precious metals, and other resources.
“We’re interested in buying some lunar soil commercially,” Bridenstine said Thursday in a virtual presentation at the Secure World Foundation’s Space Sustainability Summit. “So we want a commercial company to go to the moon, extract some lunar soil, and then … NASA can take possession of it.”
“We are buying the regolith, but we’re doing it really to demonstrate that it can be done, that the resources extracted from the moon are in fact owned by the people who invest their sweat, and their treasure, and their equity into that effort,” Bridenstine said.
NASA’s effort to purchase lunar soil from a commercial company has its roots in a law passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in 2015, Bridenstine said. The law permits private entities to extract, own and exploit water, minerals and other materials harvested from the moon.
Bridenstine said NASA’s aim to foster a commercial market for mining the moon complies with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, an international agreement ratified by 110 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, China and Russia.
The Outer Space Treaty says: “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.”
Bridenstine said NASA believes in the Outer Space Treaty, but NASA wants to “enable a normalization process” to show that extraterrestrial resources can be mined and owned.
“We believe … that we cannot appropriate the moon for national sovereignty,” he said. “And that is absolutely not what we intend to do.
“But we do believe that we can extract and utilize the resources from the moon, just like we can extract and utilize tuna from the ocean,” Bridenstine said. “We don’t own the ocean. But if you apply your your hard work, and labor, and your investment to extracting tuna from the ocean, you can own the tuna from the ocean, and that becomes a very valuable resource for humanity.”
“And so the question is, Is it possible to have property rights for extracted resources without appropriating the moon or other celestial bodies for national sovereignty? And I believe that the answer is overwhelmingly yes.”
Through the Artemis program, NASA is planning to land astronauts on the moon for the first time since 1972. The Trump administration last year directed NASA to land a crew near the moon’s south pole before the end of 2024, four years before NASA’s previous schedule for returning astro