Luxembourg, a small European country the size of Rhode Island, aims to be the Silicon Valley of the space mining industry. The landlocked Grand Duchy announced on Friday that it is opening a €200 million ($225 million) line of credit for enterprising aerospace companies to set up their European headquarters within its borders.
Luxembourg has already signed agreements with two US-based companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, to open offices in Luxembourg and conduct major research and development activities. “We intend to become the European center for asteroid mining,” said Étienne Schneider, deputy prime minister and economy minister, at a press conference on Friday.
Exploiting space resources is a long gamble. While some investors at Google and other big-socked companies have gotten behind Planetary Resources, and people like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have speculated that within a few decades most production and resource gathering will take place off Earth, today there is the very little activity during the day. Humans have never visited an asteroid, and NASA is only just planning to launch its first robotic mission this summer to visit and sample an asteroid, OSIRIS-REx.
Nevertheless, no one doubts that space is overflowing with resources. Asteroids are packed with precious metals, 24-hour solar energy from the sun can be beamed back to Earth, and the water reservoirs on the moon, asteroids and beyond can be used for fuel, farming, drinking and protecting us from radiation. Humans on Earth could, in theory, live quite comfortably on space resources without ever mining our home planet again.
The question is whether obtaining such resources can soon be made economical. Luxembourg intends to find out. Just as the United States fell last year with its Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, Luxembourg plans to rewrite its laws so that private companies have the right to the resources they mine from asteroids, but not the right to own the asteroids themselves. “We become the the first European country to establish its own legal framework,” said Schneider.
The country can also do more than just offer companies a private line of credit. Luxembourg itself is allowed to invest in those companies, just as it invested in SES, which is now one of the world’s largest satellite companies. In the mid-1980s, when Luxembourg first invested in SES, there was a similar degree of skepticism about the satellite industry, Schneider said. People wondered if they were in danger of satellites falling on them from the sky.
Pete Worden, former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, advises Luxembourg on this initiative. NASA is interested in going to Mars and Europe is interested in lunar exploration, said Dr. Become. But it’s inefficient for any space agency to launch all the resources it needs for extended space missions from Earth and potentially much cheaper to pick up supplies once they’re in space. This could allow the use of smaller, cheaper missiles. Worden envisions a time when NASA contracts with space miners to purchase quantities of water and other materials needed to continue their exploration.
“I believe the future lies in a robust space economy driven by commercial interests,” Worden said at the press conference. “The interesting thing is that we’re seeing a situation here where space agencies around the world are no longer doing these things themselves. Just as NASA is contracting with launch companies, here’s hoping that the resources needed to explore space can be purchased from these entrepreneurs .”
The two companies named Friday, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, are moving forward with plans to test asteroid mining techniques both on the ground and beyond in space. Luxembourg officials said Friday they believed one or both of these companies could launch missions to investigate potential asteroid mining targets within three years.