CLPS lander illustration
An illustration of a notional commercial lander. NASA awarded more than $250 million to three companies May 31 to land NASA payloads on the moon by the summer of 2021. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — Orbit Fab, a startup that is developing an infrastructure for in-space refueling of spacecraft, announced plans to purchase a small amount of lunar regolith and transfer it to a trust to promote sustainable management of lunar resources.

The Colorado-based company said July 26 that it signed a letter of intent with Breaking Ground, a trust established last year seeking to develop approaches for managing lunar resources. Under the agreement, Orbit Fab will purchase lunar regolith from another company and donate it to Breaking Ground to hold in trust.

The intent of the transfer is to create a model for transfer of lunar resources and to develop management approaches for such resources that are “cooperative, adaptive, plural, and balanced to fit the needs of as many stakeholders as possible,” the two organizations said in a statement.

Breaking Ground sees the trust as a way to avoid future conflicts over, or monopolization of, lunar resources by companies or countries that could hinder future activities on the moon. The trust can create precedents for the transfer of lunar resources and help mature approaches for management of those resources.

“We are looking forward to partnering with Orbit Fab and other companies to prototype new models of resource management while encouraging investment in this new domain,” Jessy Kate Schingler, one of Breaking Ground’s trustees, said in a statement.

“We need to establish the norms of operations and normalize this as an activity so that people have a little more confidence that it’s something that can be done,” Daniel Faber, co-founder and chief executive of Orbit Fab, said in an interview of transferring lunar resources. “These are things that we take for granted on Earth that haven’t been done, or shown to be done, in space.”

Orbit Fab executives said they were inspired by the “1% for the Planet” initiative where companies agree to donate 1% of their revenues to environmental nonprofit organizations. “We could start to build a structure for space where a humanitarian, responsible company framework is built in from the beginning, being effective stewards of the space environment,” said James Bultitude, chief technology officer of Orbit Fab.

Faber said Orbit Fab is in talks with several companies planning lunar landing missions to purchase regolith from them that it will then donate to Breaking Ground. “It’s basically as much as we could get from the first of the landers on the moon,” he said. “It’s not going to be a large amount because the primary purpose of those missions is not to extract and store a lot of material.”

Orbit Fab’s announcement follows NASA’s plans to purchase lunar resources from companies. In December 2020, the agency awarded contracts to four companies to transfer lunar regolith that those companies propose to acquire on future lander missions, a move intended to set a precedent for the extraction and transfer of lunar resources.

“What NASA has done is fantastic,” Faber said. “We’re expanding the realm of what has been done and setting it up in a way that we see as a responsible activity.”

Bultitude said the company envisions buying and transferring more lunar resources to Breaking Ground in the future. “Breaking Ground can go figure out the best way to shepherd that,” he said, including utilizing those resources itself or preserving them for the scientific community. “While the first donation is symbolic, it’s an intention and setting a precedent for the future that we shouldn’t necessarily be our own watchdogs.”

Orbit Fab is currently best known for developing infrastructure for satellite refueling, including an interface called RAFTI designed to enable in-space refueling as well as tankers to provide propellant for that refueling. The company anticipates in the long term harnessing lunar resources to produce fuel or other material.

“We’re looking to buy regolith or beneficiated material from anyone that will sell it to us in from the asteroids or the moon and turn that into things that people want to buy in orbit,” Faber said, hence its interest in models for managing lunar resources. “We want to help be in the middle of that and shape that, and make sure that it’s going to work for an actual economy.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...