While the country was focused on the coronavirus pandemic in early April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order establishing U.S. policy on the the mining of off-Earth resources.

This order supplemented a 2015 federal law explicitly allowing American companies and citizens to use moon and asteroid resources but stressed that there would not be a need to get bogged down with international treaties to do so. In other words, neither the Moon nor asteroids would be viewed as “global commons.”

I have often noted the need for rare earth metals for products critical to our country, both for the military as well as private industry. As Trump explores decoupling from China, it would be easier to do if the U.S. had a reliable source of these elements.

It seems that National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) now has its eyes set on the Moon’s resources,  including these critical substances. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstin says the agency is seeking help from companies to extract materials from the lunar body and bring them back home.

“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,” Bridenstine explained. The space agency said it was ready to pay between $15,000 to $25,000 for 50 to 500 grams for lunar samples, following which the material would become the sole property of NASA.

NASA wants this to happen before the 2024 Artemis Mission, which will send the first woman and the next man to the moon. “We will use what we learn on and around the moon to take the next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars,” Bridenstine wrote.

According to NASA, the Moon is a treasure trove of rare metals. Copper, aluminum, iron, and other rare earth elements mined from the lunar body can help build smartphones, computers, and medical equipment. Though 90% of these resources are produced in China, the country will eventually run out of supplies, the agency said.

This is an important step in expanding options for obtaining essential resources.

“This is one small step for space resources, but a giant leap for policy and precedent,” Mike Gold, NASA’s chief of international relations, told Reuters.

“They are paying the company to sell them a rock that the company owns. That’s the product,” Joanne Gabrynowicz, former editor-in-chief of the Journal of Space Law, said in an interview. “A company has to decide for itself if it’s worth taking the financial and technological risk to do this to sell a rock.”

Hopefully, the public-private venture will get started soon. A Chinese company has planned to launch its first asteroid-mining robot into orbit in two months.

Origin Space, a Beijing-based private space resources company, is set to send Neo-1, a 30-kilo (66-pound) small satellite carried by a Chinese Long-March series rocket, into space in November.

Despite dubbing the spacecraft ‘space-mining robot’, the upcoming mission is to test its capabilities of identifying and extracting valuable resources rather than actually mining an asteroid, the firm says.

Clearly, the race is on.

 

 
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