Here’s the deal — NASA wants 500g of dust.
And, they will pay a hefty price for it, as per the contract. You just have to go and get it.
Here’s the catch — they want it from the Moon, and quick … by 2024.
This week, the vaunted space agency issued an unprecedented solicitation titled “Purchase of Lunar Regolith and/or Rock Materials from Contractor.”
We’re not joking.
It asks contractors to bid on an effort to retrieve between 50g and 500g of lunar regolith, or moon dust, and bring it back to Earth before 2024.
The amount of material retrieved does not affect the overall price of the contract, and the contract will be awarded on the basis of being “low price, technically acceptable.”
Offers are due by October 9, 2020.
According to a report by Brett Tingley, at The Drive, the Moon is quickly becoming a site of strategic importance as China has turned its eye to our planet’s satellite after years of rapid progress in space exploration.
China recently sent the Chang’e 4 lander to the far side of the moon, triggering fears of a new space race that will see the militarization of the moon.
Contractors must provide stringent proof of collection, including giving NASA imagery of the collection, the collected material, and a means of identifying the exact location from which the regolith was retrieved, The Drive reported.
Collected materials may be any type of lunar regolith, including dusts, rocks, or even ice. NASA reserves the right to independently verify that actual collection took place.
According to the solicitation, “NASA will determine and use such independent verification methods that will not interfere with Contractor’s activities.” All analysis and assessment of materials will be conducted by NASA, The Drive reported.
Nearly the entire surface of our Moon is covered in regolith, made up of small, loose fragments of rock produced by billions of years of meteoroid and micrometeoroid impacts.
There is also lunar soil or lunar dust, a finer subset of regolith with fragments smaller than 1cm, The Drive reported.
The terms lunar regolith and lunar soil are often used interchangeably, and from the wording of NASA’s solicitation, it doesn’t seem like the space agency is too picky about what types of regolith are brought back to Earth.
Between 1969 and 1972, a total of 842 pounds of lunar rocks and dust were brought back to Earth from the lunar surface during the Apollo missions, The Drive reported.
As recently as last year, NASA was still opening pristine, unopened samples from those missions in order to better understand the lunar surface.
“We are able to make measurements today that were just not possible during the years of the Apollo program,” said Dr. Sarah Noble, a scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, about opening and examining a previously unopened Apollo sample in 2019, The Drive reported.
“The analysis of these samples will maximize the science return from Apollo, as well as enable a new generation of scientists and curators to refine their techniques and help prepare future explorers for lunar missions anticipated in the 2020s and beyond.”
So why the big rush for big Moon dust?
This latest NASA solicitation is part of a growing scientific effort to collect extraterrestrial geological samples and return them to Earth.
In 2019, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa2 spacecraft shot a small projectile into the surface of Asteroid Ryugu and collected the dust generated from the impact. Hayabusa2 is slated to return the samples to Earth later this year.
NASA and the European Space Agency proposed a joint mission earlier this year known as Mars Sample Return which would send robots to Mars to collect regolith and bring the samples back to Earth for analysis, The Drive reported.
The Moon could also become strategically vital not only for the future of space exploration and possible colonization, but the future of energy production on Earth.
The Moon is an abundant source of the isotope helium-3 (He-3) which is a source of fuel for potential thermonuclear fusion power technologies.
China and India have both explored mining the lunar surface for He-3 which, if successful, could prove to be a key resource in the burgeoning space-based economy.