NASA has asked several companies to collect moon dust for future use by astronauts on the moon.
The agency plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 under the Artemis program, and wants to use the resources on the moon to support these missions. Lunar dust could be used for constructing structures, for example, which would reduce the need to ship building materials from Earth. But testing needs to be performed in collecting dust before NASA can certify the habitats for construction.
The agency recently announced it would award $25,000 worth of contracts to four companies to test moon dust collection: Lunar Outpost (Colorado), Masten Space Systems (California), ispace Europe (Luxembourg) and ispace Japan (Tokoyo).
“The ability to extract and use extraterrestrial resources will ensure Artemis operations can be conducted safely and sustainably in support of establishing human lunar exploration,” NASA said in a statement. “Like many other operations,” the agency added, “[collection] activities will be tested and developed on the moon, building the required knowledge to implement new capabilities that will be necessary to overcome the challenges of a human mission to Mars.”
Each of these companies will scoop a little bit of lunar regolith (or soil) from a location of the moon of their choosing. While most of the selected companies chose the south pole, which is where NASA astronauts will land their first mission, ispace Japan wants to go to the Lacus Somniorum region on the Moon’s northeastern near side.
Once the regolith is picked up, the companies will take pictures of the dust and also send data indicating where the regolith came from. After that, NASA will take ownership of the regolith to use for the Artemis program.
“As human space exploration evolves toward longer journeys farther from our home planet, [using local resources] will become increasingly important,” NASA said on a website discussing its Artemis moon plans. “Resupply missions are expensive,” NASA continued, “and as astronaut crews become more independent of Earth, sustained exploration becomes more viable. For travel in space, as on Earth, we need practical and affordable ways to use resources along the way, rather than carrying everything we think will be needed.”
Another key resource to astronauts will be water, both for drinking and for manufacturing processes. The south pole is replete with water ice and NASA is also interested in extracting the water from the ice using machines on site. But the agency is in the early stages of procuring and awarding utilization contracts and will need to test any technology on site before certifying it for long-term use.
NASA’s fiscal 2021 budget is still under review, and a Senate appropriations bill released in November only gives NASA a portion of the funding it initially requested for lunar landing development. This could delay the agency’s hopes for a 2024 landing if the spending bill is approved as-is. The Senate spending bill allocates about $1 billion for NASA’s lunar landers, about a third of the administration’s $3.2 billion request. The Senate bill version, however, does offer $400 million more to NASA than the House version. (For context, the overall NASA budget is around $24 billion).
“In a fiscal environment that is extremely challenging, the Committee must weigh and prioritize funding across all of NASA’s activities, as well as important priorities throughout the bill,” the Senate wrote in a report accompanying the bill. “However, the shortfalls of NASA’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal make it impossible to fully fund all of NASA’s proposed activities.”