An asteroid in orbit has never been mined. Even the most ambitious would-be space mining companies estimate it will be at least 2020 before they begin prospecting, but the rewards could be well worth the effort. It is believed that there are billions of dollars in precious metals to be mined from asteroids in near-earth orbit. And there's water, which could be used as a propellant for deep space exploration.
Luxembourg, a speck on the European map, which has never sent a person or spacecraft into space, has nonetheless become an unlikely contender in the race to mine there. A country with little more than half a million people is next to only the US as the world's leader in the asteroid mining industry—albeit, an industry that has yet to return physical results. It's banking its future, in large part, on mining in space.
"We realized [steel] wouldn't be forever, so we decided to do other things"
Iron ore was discovered in Luxembourg in the late 1800s, and by the 1900s a thriving steel industry powered the country's economy. The oil crisis in 1973 put the steel trade into a recession. "We realized it wouldn't be forever, the steel, so we decided to do other things," said Prime Minister Xavier Bettel when delivering a speech this past May.
Since the steel crisis, Luxembourg has looked to diversify—to ensure that any other possible crises won't impede the wealth of their nation, which holds the highest GDP per capita in the world. In November, it passed a law allowing private companies based in that country to keep any resources they obtain from space.
"It seems like we have gone back to our roots and are trying to mine a journey once again, maybe a little bit further away this time, in space," Bettel said.
Even though it doesn't have a national space program, the country has had more than 30 years of experience in space and geo communication industries. In 1985, private satellite operator SES was founded there. A year later, they built their headquarters in Château de Betzdorf, a former residence of the country's Grand Duke.
"Luxembourg as a government was very keen to diversify its activities," said Patrick Biewer, CEO of LuxGovSat, a private-public partnership formed between SES and the government.
"More so than any country on Earth, Luxembourg has identified this as the future"
Biewer is a Luxembourg native and worked at SES for more than 23 years. In that time, he saw the company grow into one of the world's largest satellite operators: they own and operate more than 50 satellites in orbit that can reach 99 per cent of the world's population.
"Satellite is a key pillar, it requires high-technology competences that you can find in Luxembourg," Biewer said. "It's not just SES alone…we have many other companies that work in the space industry today."
In February 2016, Luxembourg announced it would develop a legal framework for the future commercial use of space resources. Since that time, the government has opened a fund of more than $200 million USD to invest in asteroid mining companies.
Planetary Resources is one of them. In November, the Redmond, Wash.-based asteroid mining company was given more than $26 million from Luxembourg to fund their technological advancements within the country's borders.
"I would say more so than any country on Earth, Luxembourg has identified this as the future of commercial space development," said Planetary Resources CEO Chris Lewicki. "They're taking a number of actions, including establishing their space policy, that helps create an environment for businesses like ours to operate."
With the help of this investment, Planetary Resources plans to launch their Arkyd 6 satellite—which will test their technologies and be able to detect water on asteroids—in spring 2017, according to Lewicki. After that, the company plans to be on its first mining mission by 2020.
.@PlanetaryRsrcs' Arkyd 6 equipped w/ mid-wave infrared imager to detect water on asteroids. 2 spacecraft will test this technology on orbit pic.twitter.com/NoMxFyjVZh
— Etienne Schneider (@EtienneSchneide) November 4, 2016
Beyond the technological challenges, there are ethical and legal questions to be answered before materials can be extracted and returned by private companies. Even so, commercial asteroid mining and deep space exploration is becoming a probable future.
Luxembourg's new law allowing private ownership of space resources will go into effect in early 2017, around the same time that Planetary Resources and Deep Space Resources plan to be in space testing their asteroid-mining technologies.
"This is not something that is 50 years away, it's something that is happening right now," Lewicki said.
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