In a giant leap that seems to have come straight from the world of science fiction, Nasa today began accepting applications from private companies who want to launch mining operations on the moon.
As part of a scheme that was unveiled in late January, the US space agency is inviting offers from potential business partners to help design and build lunar prospecting robots, the first major step required to explore Earth’s natural satellite for valuable resources.
Nasa has been forced to set up the Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown programme (Catalyst) on a skeleton budget, because the US government has refused to provide any funding.
That sets it apart from the agency’s deals with other private companies to deliver supplies to the International Space Station – which are backed by public coffers.
If you have a novel idea on the best way to scour the moon for minerals, and a few billion pounds going spare, Nasa is accepting proposals from today until 17 March, 2014, according to reports from The Verge.
Jason Crusan, director of Nasa's advanced exploration systems, told the AFP news agency mining the moon was far from just the stuff of fantasy.
He said recent missions had already revealed evidence of water and other substances of interest on the moon’s surface. “But to understand the extent and accessibility of these resources, we need to reach the surface and explore up close,” he said.
“Commercial lunar landing capabilities could help prospect for and utilize these resources,“ he added, which could allow for both commercial and research activities.
NASA: Space in pictures
NASA: Space in pictures
A false colour image of Cassiopeia A comprised with data from the Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes and the Chandra X-Ray observatory
The Barred Spiral Galaxy (NGC 6217) in the Ursa Minor constellation is pictured in Space
A team of astrophysicists has detected so-called gravitational waves – predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago – which are the first tremors of the Big Bang when time and space began about 13.7 billion years ago
Rex Features/Mood Board
The barred spiral galaxy M83, also known as the Southern Pinwheel. The Hubble photograph captures thousands of star clusters, hundreds of thousands of individual stars, and 'ghosts' of dead stars called supernova remnants
Acosmic creepy-crawly known as the Tarantula Nebula in infrared light
A spiral galaxy ESO 373-8 - together with at least seven of its galactic neighbours, this galaxy is a member of the NGC 2997 group
A massive galaxy cluster Abell 2744, according to NASA these are some of the faintest and youngest galaxies ever detected in space
A giant cloud of solar particles, a coronal mass ejection, explodes off the sun, lower right, captured by the European Space Agency and NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory
Current conditions of the quiet corona and upper transition region of the Sun
First color image of the Earth taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968
Fog forming over the the US Great Lakes area and streaming southeast with the wind. A swirling mass of Arctic air moved south into the continental United States
Astronaut Mike Hopkins, Expedition 38 Flight Engineer, is shown in the second of two spacewalks designed to allow the crew to change out a faulty water pump on the exterior of the Earth-orbiting International Space Station
“As Nasa pursues an ambitious plan for humans to explore an asteroid and Mars, US industry will create opportunities for Nasa to advance new technologies on the moon,” said Greg Williams, a top Nasa official.
Scientists still face a rocky road ahead before they can realise the dream of mining in space, however. A Harvard research paper published just last month suggested that the vast majority of near-Earth asteroids would be unsuitable for mining on a commercial scale.
And the question of who actually owns the moon – and therefore the profits from mining it – remains unresolved. With China and the US already in conflict over the former’s attempts to land a rover on the moon, we could yet see the world involved in a lunar land-grab in years to come.