NASA will buy moon dirt from these 4 companies

NASA just bought the rights to four batches of future moon samples for the low, low price of $25,001.

a close up of the moon: An image of the near side of the moon based on data from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

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An image of the near side of the moon based on data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The space agency inked deals with four companies that will collect lunar rock and dirt in the next few years and then sign the material over to NASA. The contracts are designed to get the ball rolling on the extraction, sale and use of off-Earth resources, which agency officials stress are key to extending humanity’s footprint into the final frontier.


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“We think it’s very important to establish the precedent that private-sector entities can extract, can take these resources, and NASA can purchase and utilize them to fuel not only NASA’s activities but a whole new dynamic era of public and private development in exploration on the moon and then, eventually, to Mars,” Mike Gold, NASA’s acting associate administrator for international and interagency relations, told reporters during a teleconference today (Dec. 3).

Related: NASA’s full plate of moon missions before astronauts can go

NASA has not yet made plans for the retrieval of the collected samples, and it’s unclear if the material will be brought to Earth, agency officials said. (NASA already has a lot of moon rocks here; the Apollo missions hauled home 842 lbs., or 342 kilograms, of lunar material between 1969 and 1972.)

The four companies, and their contract awards, are Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California ($15,000); ispace Europe of Luxembourg ($5,000); ispace Japan of Tokyo ($5,000); and Colorado-based Lunar Outpost ($1).

The funding is so low because NASA is paying solely for the collected material, without footing the bill for any of the companies’ development costs, agency officials said. 

Masten, ispace Europe and Lunar Outpost all plan to collect their samples from the moon’s south polar region, where the three companies aim to land in 2023. Masten will use its XL-1 lander, ispace Europe will rely on its Hakuto-R lander and Lunar Outpost’s robot will apparently hitch a ride to the lunar surface aboard Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander, NASA officials said today.

Hakuto-R is also the lander of choice for ispace Japan, which will collect samples from Lacus Somniorum, a site on the northeastern near side of the moon, following a planned touchdown there in 2022.

Each set of snagged samples will weigh between 1.8 and 18 ounces (50 to 500 grams), according to a request for proposals that NASA released in September. The four companies will provide imagery of the samples, as well as data that identifies where it was collected.

“Subsequent to receiving such imagery and data, an ‘in-place’ transfer of ownership of the lunar regolith to NASA will take place,” agency officials wrote in a statement today. “After ownership transfer, the collected material becomes the sole property of NASA for the agency’s use under the Artemis program.”

Artemis is NASA’s ambitious program of crewed lunar exploration, which aims to land

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China’s Chang’e 5 lands on moon, gets ready to dig in the lunar dirt

China’s Chang’e 5 mission has touched down on the surface of the moon, the country’s media reports. Next, the lander will drill to collect volcanic moon rock samples and scoop up some lunar dirt for return to Earth later this month.

a store inside of a building: The Long March rocket carrying Chang'e 5, prepared for launch. CNSA

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The Long March rocket carrying Chang’e 5, prepared for launch. CNSA

China’s space agency launched the Chang’e 5 mission atop one of its Long March 5 rockets on Nov. 23. The lunar-sample return marks the first such mission by any country in decades.


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The landing came just before 7:15 a.m. PT on Tuesday. The gear is now expected to gather its samples and stow them in a small spacecraft atop the lander, which will then lift off in about 48 hours. After that, the ascent vehicle will transfer the samples to an orbiter now circling the moon that will transport them back to Earth.

According to, landing was expected to take place near Mons Rumker, a region of the moon that has seen volcanic activity more recently than other parts of our natural satellite. This could mean that the area is home to some of the youngest moon rocks around, providing a new window into its geology.

The China National Space Administration says the Chang’e 5 lander will drill into the lunar surface “to collect underground rocks” and use a mechanical arm to scoop up samples of surface soil. The ascent probe will lift about 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of samples from the moon’s surface for transport back to Earth. The sample is expected to land on Dec. 15 in Inner Mongolia, where it will be collected for study.

a store inside of a building: The Long March rocket carrying Chang'e 5 is prepared for launch.


The Long March rocket carrying Chang’e 5 is prepared for launch.

The Soviets were the last to bring lunar dirt back home, with the Luna 24 mission in 1976.

Chang’e 5 gets its name from the Chinese moon goddess and follows the Chang’e 4 mission, which sent a lander and rover to the far side of the moon, where they’ve been taking some interesting photos for almost two years now.

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If It Smells like Dirt, Fire Ants Are Interested

You and a fire ant have something in common: you can both smell dirt, and, odds are, you both like it. 

Although most humans agree that fresh dirt smells sweet, that is not a view universally shared. Fruit flies hate the smell, apparently because it signals spoiled food.

On the other hand, mosquitoes like dirt smell and use it as a cue for egg laying. And as I wrote last spring, tiny arthropods called springtails think dirt not only smells great, it’s the smell of steak night at the Sizzler.

The reason, as I wrote here earlier this year, is that dirt doesn’t smell like dirt. It smells like bacteria—actinobacteria, to be precise. These bacteria generate the odors we think of as characteristic of dirt to ring the dinner bell for springtails to come eat and disperse their spores.

Why fire ants think dirt smells good, and how we even came to investigate this unorthodox question, is a different story.

For those of you keeping track at home, fire ants are one of the original nasty invasive species, up there with Dutch Elm Disease, salt cedar and dandelions. The South America natives were introduced to the southern United States in the 1930s, and have proceeded to take over most of the Southeast, to the lasting distress of all the other inhabitants. Fire ants are notorious for swarming and stinging, and their name is an apt description of the result of an encounter. 

They’re also notorious for their extraordinary resilience. Nest gets flooded? No problem. Simply join legs to form a giant ant raft and float to safety, a strategy that evolved on the flood plains of South America. Such ant balls were spotted floating in the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey.

Over the last 90 years, fire ants have irrevocably altered the southeastern United States. Some 30–60 percent of the human population there is stung every year, to say nothing of the wildlife and livestock. In their quest for protein, swarms can kill calves and strip the bones. The ants have displaced many native species, reduced biodiversity, spread disease and even likely caused one species of lizard to evolve longer legs just to provide more leverage for flinging them off.

The costs are not just physical. Fire ants cost the U.S. around $6.5 billion annually on a combination of control, medical treatments, livestock and crop loss, and vet bills. We are not alone in our suffering. In just the last 20 years, fire ants have colonized China, Taiwan, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Macao, the Caribbean and Australia.

That unfortunate turn of events may be what prompted Chinese scientists to take a look at the vital question of fire ant real estate preferences in research published in September in the journal PLOS Pathogens.. Because it turns out that fire ant queens have strong opinions, and one of their highly-desirables is, apparently, dirt perfume.

In China, scientists observed that some soils seemed to be favored by fire ant queens. To investigate,

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