Space exploration is expensive, and NASA is always looking for ways to economize.
The US space agency will be saving some big bucks by paying a Colorado startup just $1 to collect soil samples from the moon.
The company, Lunar Outpost, has agreed to send a rover to the lunar South Pole in 2023 to collect samples for NASA.
Two other companies, Tokyo-based iSpace and Southern California aerospace manufacturer Masten Space Systems, also won low-bid contracts—for $5000 and $15,000 respectively.
Lunar Outpost says it was able to make such a supremely low bid because it was already planning collect moon dust from the lunar surface.
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Lunar Outpost’s Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform (MAPP) rover during night testing at Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes. The company has agreed to be paid just $1 by NASA to collect soil samples from the surface of the moon in 2023
NASA put out a call for companies willing to collect between 1.7 and 17 ounces of regolith, or soil, from anywhere on the Moon.
The agency capped bidding at $250,000, saying it was only paying for the actual collection, not development of a spacecraft or rover to do the job.
Lunar Outpost proposed gathering regolith from the lunar South Pole in 2023 for a dollar, while iSpace proposed collection for $5,000 following arrival of a lander to Lacus Somniorum on the Moon’s northeastern near side in 2022, and another $5,000 contract following arrival of a lander to the lunar South Pole in 2023.
Masten Space Systems also proposed a collection from the lunar South Pole in 2023, but for $15,000.
Lunar Outpost is one of three companies making ultra-low bids to collect moon dust for NASA. Southern California’s Masten Space Systems offered $15,000 for a collection in 2023 and Tokyo-based iSpace proposed two collections for $5,000 each in 2022 and 2023
The winning companies will be paid in three installments: 10 percent now, 10 percent when its rover is launched into space, and the remainder when NASA 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.
Overall, the new contracts total $25,001, a relative bargain.
After receiving data and imagery confirming collection of the regolith, the material will become NASA’s sole property under the agency’s Artemis program.
NASA has made it clear the initiative is less about the samples themselves and more about establishing a precedent of working with private companies to extract lunar resources.
‘These awards expand NASA’s innovative use of public-private partnerships to the Moon,’ said NASA spokesperson Mike Gold. ‘We’re excited to join with our commercial and international partners to make Artemis the largest and most diverse global human space exploration coalition in history. Space resources are the fuel that will propel America and all of humanity to the stars.’
Lunar Outpost’s Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform. The company already had plans to collect lunar samples, so the effort to set some for NASA ‘was, in fact, trivial’
Lunar Outpost will deploy its Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform rover to complete the mission.
The company said the benefits were well worth any financial hit.
‘This contract is symbolic of a new incentive that will exponentially increase the potential of future missions and be the main economic driver of the New Space economy for decades to come: access to the unlimited and invaluable resources of space.’
Lunar Oupost was already making plans to collect lunar samples, so the extra effort to snag some for NASA ‘was, in fact, trivial,’ said NASA commercial spaceflight director Phil McAlister.
Exactly which space mission it will piggyback onto, though, is still up in the air. CEO Justin Cyrus told CNBC he’s in talks with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and other companies planning moon missions in the near future.
‘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.’