It could be the base for space’s first miners

The price of gold might be at near record levels, but it’s nothing compared to what you can get for a handful of dust. Provided the dust comes from the moon, that is. In preparation for a manned—and womanned—lunar mission by 2024, NASA is offering between US$15,000-$25,000 (A$21,000-$35,000) for 50-500 gram samples of moondust and rocks. The efforts are part of the Artemis lunar exploration program that aims to put the first woman on the moon and determine the feasibility of using it as a base for missions to Mars. The discovery of water on the sunlit surface of the moon has already sparked hope that it could serve as a way station on the journey to worlds beyond. The soil samples will help in figuring out how to make that happen.

Getting the dirt

It was a NASA flying observatory that found the water and that will continue studying how this lunar H2O is created and stored. But the agency is outsourcing the journey to, and the digging on the moon to private companies. Bring back what they’re looking for, and they’ll pay handsomely for it.

“The requirements we’ve outlined are that a company will collect a small amount of Moon ‘dirt’ or rocks from any location on the lunar surface, provide imagery to NASA of the collection and the collected material, along with data that identifies the collection location, and conduct an ‘in-place’ transfer of ownership of the lunar regolith or rocks to NASA. After ownership transfer, the collected material becomes the sole property of NASA for our use,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote in a blog post.

Whilst one of Australia’s space startups is more likely to be able to reach the moon than a team of miners, these companies mostly focus on launching other people’s equipment into space, so it could be a mining company providing equipment that could hitch a ride with a company like SpaceX and do the actual collecting.

The fee from NASA for the dirt and rocks would hardly be the most lucrative aspect of this mission from a mining perspective. It would be getting a leg up in the race for space mining, which could very well be where the world’s first quadrillionaire makes that fortune. Asteroids containing more minerals than the whole of Earth are just whizzing around up there, and whoever mines one first will become very, very rich.

Legal framework

It’s not exactly a free-for-all out there. There are some international treaties governing space law, and the winning bidder or bidders will have to conform. But there’s a lot of wiggle room.

“When considering such proposals, we will require that all actions be taken in a transparent fashion, in full compliance with the Registration Convention, Article II and other provisions of the Outer Space Treaty, and all of our other international obligations. We are putting our policies into practice to fuel a new era of exploration and discovery that will benefit all of humanity,” Bridenstine wrote.

The Outer Space Treaty, to which 110 countries are a party, prohibits nuclear weapons in space, establishes that the moon and other celestial bodies are to be used for peaceful purposes only, and that no notion can claim sovereignty over them or space. As a US agency, NASA does not conform to the Moon Treaty, which among other objectives seeks to ban military use of celestial bodies and calls for states to share equally in lunar resources. Australia is one of only 18 parties to the Moon Treaty, which the major space exploring countries have rejected.

For a 21st century approach as space mining and moon bases come closer to actuality, NASA has announced the Artemis Accords. Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the UAE, UK, and US are the founding members, with Russia rejecting the accords as too US-centric and China excluded.

The Artemis Accords build on the Outer Space Treaty and require registration of space objects, release of scientific data, protection of “space heritage,” and safe disposal of debris. Most notably for mining, they say “the ability to extract and utilize resources on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids will be critical to support safe and sustainable space exploration and development.” They also call for “safety zones” around extraction sites and bases to prevent “harmful interference.”

The Artemis program won’t just take astronauts back to the moon and beyond, it could take mining there as well.