Golden company reaches historic agreement to collect moon dust for NASA

Space agency to pay Lunar Outpost $1 for material but company says its not about money

Paul Albani-Burgio
palbaniburgio@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 1/25/21

For most people, a dollar might get you a can of coke or, if you're lucky, a candy bar from a convenience store. But if you're NASA it can get you a small sample of moon dust, the kind of which could …

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Golden company reaches historic agreement to collect moon dust for NASA

Space agency to pay Lunar Outpost $1 for material but company says its not about money

Posted

For most people, a dollar might get you a can of coke or, if you're lucky, a candy bar from a convenience store.

But if you're NASA it can get you a small sample of moon dust, the kind of which could someday be used to supercharge exploration and even settlement of farther flung corners of the solar system.

That's according to the terms of a contract announced on Dec. 3 between the national space agency and a Golden company called Lunar Outpost that will become one of the first to be paid by NASA for materials collected in space.

To fulfill the contract, Lunar Outpost will have a spacecraft designed to land on the moon offered by Blue Origin or one of the several other commercial spaceflight companies take a rover it has developed to the moon. There, it will collect a “small amount” of lunar soil and provide imagery of both the collection and the material.

The material will become property of NASA but remain on the moon, where it could someday be analyzed by NASA astronauts on the planned Artemis mission in 2024. However, the primary purpose of the enterprise is to provide "proof of concept" that such collections and sales are viable.

In return, NASA will pay Lunar Outpost a total of $1 over the course of three installments with 10% being paid at the time of the award, 10% when the space craft is launched and 80% after the material is collected.

“If you are thinking `is NASA going to cut a check for 10 cents?' the answer is `yes,'” said NASA Commercial Spaceflight Director Phil McAlister during a press conference discussing the contract. “And yes, the postage is going to be more than the check which is kind of amazing.”

But for Lunar Outpost, a company of 25 employees that launched in 2017, the partnership is not so much about the present but what it could lead to in the future.

Currently, space exploration requires that spacecrafts and satellites carry fuel from Earth to power their travel. But moon soil contains hydrogen and oxygen that could be used to both produce rocket fuel and produce water that would make space travel much easier — and cheaper.

“For us and some of our partners in the area like Colorado School of Mines this is a very big deal as it allows us to take the first step into a larger scale extraction of resources on the moon,” said Lunar Outpost CEO Justin Cyrus.

Lunar Outpost is one of our four companies that NASA reached contracts with to collect dust from the moon in either 2022 or 2023 for a total cost of $25,001. Cyrus said Lunar Outpost is able to collect the dust for $1 because it was already going to be sending its rover to the moon for another mission.

"The $1 represents us participating with NASA to help establish a legal and procedural framework for the acquisition of space resources moving forward," he said. "This in turn will help us and other commercial companies to have confidence in business plans and missions involving space resources.

According to Cyrus, a ride to the moon typically costs about $1.2 million per kilogram of mass, meaning that Lunar Outpost can expect to pay about $12 million to transport its 10 kg rover.

In announcing the contracts, McAlister said one of NASA's goals in contracting for the collection of the materials is to create a precedent for doing so.

International treaties dealing with outer space and the moon allow for the collection of such materials by commercial ventures but this will be the first time such steps are taken in practice.

“We want to demonstrate explicitly that you can extract and you can utilize resources and that we will be conducting those activities in full compliance with the outer space treaty and publicly sharing any scientific data that comes from such activities,” said McAlister.

It is important for NASA to increase its ability to extract and use lunar resources as it implements its Artemis program, which is seeking to establish a permanent human presence on the moon and fuel exploration to Mars.

“Space resources are the fuel that will propel humanity further into the final frontier,” said Mike Gold, NASA's acting associate administrator for international and interagency relations.

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