Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made a splash at the Code Conference last week when he told reporters that he thinks we need to start manufacturing in space in order to save the planet.
Bezos imagined a future where "all of our heavy industry will be moved off-planet [and] Earth will be zoned residential and light industrial." While this might sound pretty far out, Bezos isn't alone in trying to take Earth's heavy industry off planet—a number of asteroid mining companies have sprung up in the last few years and are jockeying for contracts that would allow them to extract precious metals from the millions of giant space rocks populating our solar system.
So far, these asteroid mining initiatives have been bogged down by technical difficulties and legal red tape. After all, nobody owns space, so countries can't legally sell the rights to mine and extract profit it. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg—one of the smallest countries in Europe—wants to change that.
On Friday, the country came a step closer to realizing this vision by announcing the drafting of a new comprehensive framework that will ensure asteroid mining companies have rights to the materials they harvest in space. The law is expected to go into effect in 2017, but in the meantime the government is opening up a €200 million (about $226 million) line of credit for R&D by asteroid mining companies that are headquartered in the country.
According to the press release, the new law will allow Luxembourg to issue space-resource licenses authorizing the extraction of materials from Near Earth Objects. A number of space law experts are advising on the creation of this framework to make sure it is in compliance with the international Outer Space Treaty. Although this new legislation will only be effective at a national level, Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said he wanted it to be a stepping stone to a "mutually beneficial" international agreement on asteroid mining.
Luxembourg's new law is similar to the United States' Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE)Actpassed last year after an intensive lobbying effort by the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources. But unlike the SPACE Act, which allows "United States citizens to engage in commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources," Luxembourg's law applies to non-nationals as well.
Critics of asteroid mining argue that allowing ownership of materials harvested in space is an act of sovereignty and thus violates the Outer Space Treaty, which explicitly prohibits countries from appropriating parts of space for national use.
Despite the messy business of figuring out who, if anyone, has a right to sell outer space, the advantages of mining materials like iron, platinum, or palladium on asteroids are manifold. Aside from potentially being a trillion-dollar industry, asteroid mining may very well be essential to humanity's future in space. If we're serious about building colonies on the moon and Mars, we're going to need a lot of raw material and it's more cost effective (and environmentally friendly) to harvest them from an asteroid than from Earth.
There are still a number of technical details that have to be worked out before we'll be extracting gold from space rock, but serious initiatives to make it happen are already underway. The two main players in the asteroid mining game—Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries—are starting to test mining techniques, and according to Luxembourg's economy ministry, both companies have already established "legal entities" in the country. The Luxembourg ministry said it is optimistic that at least one of these companies will launch a prospecting mission to an asteroid within three years.