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NASA will pay a company $1 to collect moon rocks

A photo of the moon taken by SpaceIL’s Beresheet spacecraft in orbit.

SpaceIL

NASA will pay an amazingly low price – a dollar – to have a company make a single small collection of moon dirt on the agency’s behalf.

Colorado-based start-up Lunar Outpost bid $1 and won a NASA contract to complete a mission under the agency’s low-cost lunar resource collection program announced earlier this year.

NASA wants to pay companies for individual collections of lunar regolith, or Moon soil, between 50 grams and 500 grams. The agency explicitly outlined it is only paying companies to collect material and say where NASA can find it on the moon’s surface – not to develop the spacecraft or return the regolith to Earth.

Lunar Outpost is one of the three companies that NASA selected on Thursday as winning bidders. The other two winners were California-based Masten Space Systems, which proposed a $15,000 mission in 2023, and Tokyo-based ispace, which proposed a pair of $5,000 missions in 2022 and 2023.

“The companies will collect the samples and then provide us with visual evidence and other data that they’ve been collected, and then ownership will transfer and we will then collect those samples,” NASA acting associate administrator Mike Gold told reporters in a press conference. “The objective [of these collection missions] is twofold: There is important policy and precedent that’s being set, both relative to the utilization of space resources, and the expansion of the public and private partnerships  beyond Earth orbit to the moon.”

The agency asked for bids in the range of $15,000 to $25,000 each, with a maximum limit of $250,000. The awards for the three companies will be paid in a three step process: 10% of the funds at the time of the award, 10% when the company launches their collection spacecraft, and 80% when NASAA verifies the company collected the material.

“Is NASA going to cut a check for 10 cents [to Lunar Outpost]? The answer is yes,” NASA commercial spaceflight director Phil McAlister said.

McAlister explained that Lunar Outpost was able to bid $1 because the company was already planning to collect lunar material, so segregating some regolith for NASA “was in fact trivial.”

While NASA said Lunar Outpost will fly on a mission by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to the moon’s south pole in 2023, Blue Origin told CNBC that was inaccurate. Lunar Outpost CEO Justin Cyrus clarified, telling CNBC that his company is in talks with Blue Origin and several other companies that are working to fly to the moon.

“We are compatible with a variety of landers … [but] we have not made a final decision on any of these landers,” Cyrus said. “Blue Origin makes a hell of a space vehicle, there’s no doubt about, but we are not contractually obligated to use any one specific lander.”

The agency received 22 mission proposals from at least 16 companies, as some bid multiple times. While NASA declined to specify which companies submitted proposals that were not selected, McAlister explained that some went over the agency’s cost or selection criteria.

NASA’s announcement follows President Donald Trump’s executive order earlier this year that the U.S. would seek further international support for its policy that allows private organizations to collect and use resources in space. Trump’s executive order essentially reaffirms a decision made by Congress in 2015, which gives American individuals and corporations “the right to engage in the commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space.”

Additionally, Thursday’s announcement comes as China conducts a lunar sample collection mission of its own. Currently the Chinese Chang’e 5 lunar spacecraft is on its way back to Earth with samples from the moon, having launched on Nov. 24. It would be the first return of lunar material by any country since 1976.

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