NASA wants to procure samples of lunar soil from private contractors, the agency announced today in a blog post by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. This is part of the agency’s overall ambitions around returning humans to the moon by 2024, and establishing a sustained human research presence there. NASA is asking for proposals from commercial space companies to offer up their proposals for collecting a small amount of rocks or dirt from “any location” on the moon’s surface, along with a photo of the collection process and resulting sample.
The proposals ask only that private companies collect the material — they’re not responsible for actually getting it back to Earth for study. They will need to do an “in-place” hand-off of the collected sample to the agency — on the moon, but that’s much less of a challenge than shipping it all the way back here, and the specifics around retrieval will be handled by NASA “at a later date.”
Some stipulations and specifics to keep in mind: NASA wants the retrieval of the materials to take place before 2024, along with the ownership hand-off. This is also open to companies internationally, so it’s not just for U.S. private space companies, and it’s also possible that NASA will make more than one award under the program. In terms of payouts, winning companies will get 10% of the total contract value at the time of the award, another 10% at launch of their retrieval vehicle and the final 80% once the sample is collected and handed off.
There are a number of companies working on extraterrestrial resource collection, so this call could get some interesting applicants. It’s worth noting that this is separate from NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which offers contracts for transporting experiments to the lunar surface aboard landers — but you can bet some of those startups and companies will be vying for the chance to use said landers and robotic rovers in development to pick up some moon dirt for NASA.