The Moon. Photo: NASA

NASA is asking private companies to help the space agency collect dirt and rocks from the Moon, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced today.

Why it matters: The solicitation is part of NASA's push to commercialize space and make the agency a buyer of services in space instead of a sole provider.

  • That commercialization could help NASA focus on further-afield goals like getting humans to Mars instead of focusing on more basic operations that could be passed off to industry.

What's happening: Private companies selected for the mission will be required to collect lunar rocks and dirt for NASA but will not be responsible for delivering the samples back to Earth.

  • Instead, NASA is asking that the companies cache the samples on the Moon, taking detailed photos of the collection site and samples before transferring ownership of the material to the agency.
  • "NASA’s payment is exclusively for the lunar regolith, with any awardee receiving 10 percent at award, 10 percent upon launch, and the remaining 80 percent upon successful completion," Bridenstine wrote in a blog post.
  • NASA hopes that the sampling and transfer of ownership will be done before 2024.

The big picture: That 2024 deadline is important because NASA is planning to launch people to the Moon that year as part of its Artemis program.

  • These lunar rock samples will allow scientists to perform new analyses and learn more about how to possibly harvest resources like water from the Moon that can then be used to accomplish bigger missions, like a trip to Mars.

Yes, but: It's not yet clear whether the commercial space industry will be able to support this kind of sample collection in just a couple of years.

  • Sample collection and landing on the Moon, in general, isn't easy, so this kind of request on this timescale is asking a lot of a nascent part of a growing industry.

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