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NASA Administrator Makes Space Resource History with 10 Cent Check

August 24, 2021 by Victoria Turner
(Illustration courtesy of NASA)

WASHINGTON — The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Administrator Bill Nelson handed over a check for 10 cents to Lunar Outpost CEO Justin Cyrus at yesterday’s Space Foundation 36th Space Symposium. 

The check was 10% of the Colorado-based startup’s $1 bid that landed them the contract to collect resources from the moon’s surface. 

The purpose of NASA’s Artemis program is to bring human exploration back to the moon. To accomplish this mission NASA will need to build infrastructure on and around the moon itself, using resources from the lunar surface. 

The day will come, the former senator from Florida said, when cement will be made from lunar regolith – moon dust – to build lunar habitats. This is where Lunar Outpost comes in; it, and three other companies, is tasked with collecting the material, sending images and analytical data as well as the regolith’s location to NASA. The agency will then own the findings. 

“The South Pole is where the water is,” Nelson said, explaining that water can then be mixed with the regolith to create those habitats and will also contain “hydrogen for fuel and… oxygen to breathe.” 

“The ability to extract and use extraterrestrial resources will ensure Artemis operations can be conducted safely and sustainably in support of our human exploration,” Nelson said. 

The opportunity to participate in space exploration programs today is not exclusive to the agencies or legacy giants that have traditionally played a part, Nelson explained, and NASA is partnering with several startups and small businesses on this project. Lunar Outpost will be joined by three other companies – California-based Masten Space Systems, ispace Europe in Luxembourg and ispace Japan in Tokyo – in the space resource mission. 

“A policy for the recovery and use of space resources provides a stable and predictable investment environment for commercial space operators,” Nelson said, noting that the biggest problem space exploration currently has comes from “irresponsible folks that have launched and blown up assets, and there are thousands of pieces of space junk flying at 17,500 miles an hour” in the same altitude range as assets like the U.S. space station and Earth Observing satellites. 

Responsible private-public partnerships have come together to move space exploration forward in a more orderly way. Lunar Outpost’s rover will be launched into space on one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets, and a “lunar-hopper-lander” developed by Houston, Texas-based Intuitive Machines will then drop the rover on the moon’s surface as part of its IM-2 South Pole mission. Through Nokia’s LTE 4G technologies, the rover and lander will have interlunar communications and the high bandwidth to communicate with Earth. The rover is slated to land on the moon’s South Pole by the fourth quarter of 2022, a year earlier than expected. 

Another Colorado-based small business that will be a key part of the Artemis program is Advanced Space. The company’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, CAPSTONE, mission is a rapid and low-cost small spacecraft pathfinder for NASA’s Artemis program. It will be testing an elliptical lunar orbit for NASA´s Gateway, the lunar outpost for Artemis. 

“This small business is helping us find the elliptical orbit that, eventually, Gateway will be in,” 

“Going back to the Moon is a means of going to Mars,” Nelson said, pointing out that it can take six to eight months to get to Mars, then six to eight months back. And once you get there, before your long journey back, you may have to stay on the surface for a long period due to conditions or planet alignment. 

With radiation levels in space exceeding anything experienced on Earth, and the potential effects and damage from solar explosions in transit and on the surface of the moon and Mars, he explained the dangers of deep space exploration need to be tested to ensure humans can be safely deployed. 

“We don’t have that ability right now to sustain and supply and equip human life for that long and that far a mission,” he said. Human lunar exploration will assist the system in learning the techniques they will need to use to be successful in the low gravity environment for a long period of time. Government, along with large and small businesses, may be the key to finding a successful way of going about it.

Collateral benefits from these private-public partnerships have already developed, so don’t feel sorry for Lunar Outposts’ $1 contract. It has successfully developed an air-quality sensor, Space Canary or Canary-S, that is being used across industries in 15 states in tasks like sensing forest fires. This technology, Nelson explained, “[meets] NASA’s need to contain hazardous moon dust.” 

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