One of the aims of NASA's Artemis mission, which ultimately wants to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, is to learn how to live and operate on the surface of another celestial body.
NASA wants to take its astronauts to the south pole of the moon, where there is water in the form of ice in permanently shadowed craters.
Water is a valuable resource not just for life, but also, when broken into its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen, for propellant for rockets, allowing for exploration even deeper into space.
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And now the space agency is looking to team up with a company that can help it mine the ice, as well as other precious metals that could be up there.
NASA anticipates paying roughly between £11,000 to £20,000 for between 50 to 500 grams (1.7 ounces to about 17 ounces) of material, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said, although companies will also be able to set their own prices in their bids for the opportunity.
In a blog on NASA's website, Mr Bridenstine wrote: "The requirements we’ve outlined are that a company will collect a small amount of Moon “dirt” or rocks from any location on the lunar surface, provide imagery to NASA of the collection and the collected material, along with data that identifies the collection location, and conduct an “in-place” transfer of ownership of the lunar regolith or rocks to NASA."
Once NASA takes possession of the material, it will determine how to get it to Earth.
The exciting mission could lead to a number of potential discoveries. “What other resources might be there?” Bridenstine said. “The answer is we don’t know.”
Casey Dreier, a senior space policy advisor at the Planetary Society wrote on Twitter: “The importance of this announcement is not so much the financial incentive (which is tiny) but in establishing the legal precedent that private companies can collect and sell celestial materials (with the explicit blessing of NASA/US gov).”
Bidding for the program would be open not just to US companies but international ones as well as part of an effort to “encourage International support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law”.
Clive Neal, a University of Notre Dame planetary scientist, called it a “paradigm shift” that would allow “more sample returns from the moon” and “open up lunar resources”.
The program “will speed up the technology development,” he said. “This puts it on the fast track, and the Administrator is driving that opportunity.”