NASA has announced the first contracts with private space companies, under which they will mine the soil on the moon and transfer it to the agency. One of the companies, Lunar Outpost, agreed to do it for one dollar, while others asked for $ 5 to $ 15 thousand.
In 2017, the United States decided to send astronauts to the moon again, and two years later set tough deadlines for NASA: the agency must have time to prepare and carry out the first landing by the end of 2024. The new lunar exploration program is called Artemis, and its organization differs from the way the Apollo program was organized in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead of developing all the necessary devices on its own, this time NASA decided to order most of the work from private space companies in order to stimulate the development of astronautics in the country and at the same time save money.
In addition to the landing of people, “Artemis” also implies the automatic exploration of the Moon by landing vehicles and lunar rovers. In 2019, the agency selected the first companies to deliver equipment to the lunar surface, and in September announced that it was ready to buy lunar soil from private companies, which they would extract with their machines.
The conditions of the competition were simple: the company needed to land on the moon, extract regolith or stones weighing 50 to 500 grams from the surface, take photographs of the extracted material and send it to Earth. After that, the extracted soil formally becomes the property of NASA, while it does not have to be delivered to Earth or to the desired point on the Moon.
Two and a half months later, NASA selected the first companies to win contracts based on two criteria. First, they checked applications with a description of the mission and vehicles for technical feasibility. They then simply ranked the potential projects at the requested price. Because of this scheme, one of the winning companies, the American Lunar Outpost, received a symbolic contract worth one dollar. They plan to launch their lander in 2023 and land near the moon’s south pole.
The rest of the companies received more expensive contracts, which are still not comparable to the cost of launching the spacecraft to the Moon. American Masten Space Systems will receive $15,000 for soil mining. Like Lunar Outpost, they plan to plant their vehicle at the South Pole in 2023. Two more contracts were awarded to the Japanese company Ispace, or rather, its Japanese and European subsidiaries. The European office will also send the lander to the South Pole in 2023. The European branch of Ispace is the only one of the winners to choose a different goal and deadline: in 2022, the company will send its automatic station to Lake of Dreams, located in the northern parts of the moon. Ispace will receive $ 5,000 for each contract.
In November, the US Senate proposed cutting a portion of NASA’s budget for the Artemis program, which could lead to the postponement of the first astronaut landing from 2024 to a later date.