Luxembourg, the teeny little European nation, intends to become a hub for a new budding industry: asteroid mining.
"Our aim is to open access to a wealth of previously unexplored mineral resources on lifeless rocks hurling through space, without damaging natural habitats," the country's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy Étienne Schneider in a statement on Tuesday. "We will support the long-term economic development of new, innovative activities in the space and satellite industries as a key high-tech sector for Luxembourg."
The grand duchy, which is wedged between Belgium, France, and Germany, plans to invest in research in outer space mining and formulate a legal framework for companies to conduct business beyond the confines of the planet. Schneider noted that the amount of funding for the initiative would be unveiled at the end of the year.
With a population of around 570,000 and a geographic area smaller than that of Rhode Island, Luxembourg might seem a long shot for such a venture. But it's home to SES and Intelstat, two of the world's biggest commercial satellite companies, so it has expertise in fostering space exploration.
While the country's move evokes sci-fi films — 1981's Outland, featuring Sean Connery as a space cop battling drug dealers in a mining colony on one of Jupiter's moons, comes to mind — experts said that landing a spacecraft on an asteroid and drilling is well within the realm of possibility.
"From a law of physics standpoint, it's perfectly feasible," said Scott Pace, an international affairs professor and director at the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University.
The motivations behind Luxembourg's announcement were firmly rooted on Earth, said Pace and others. Asteroid mining is set to become big business in the next decade or two, and Luxembourg wants to hop on the gravy train early.
"It's going to be like the original gold rush days," remarked Robert Frantz, president of Kepler Energy & Space Engineering. His firm has designed space mining equipment and is now seeking investors.
Frantz said that Kepler Energy was behind two other American companies, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, which have already received funding as well as NASA contracts to develop space mining projects.In November, President Barack Obama signed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act into law to give such projects a boost.
While international treaties ban countries from colonizing celestial bodies, the law permitted American companies to own whatever materials they can retrieve from them. While Pace and other experts haven't seen the fine print on Luxembourg's proposal, they expect that the grand duchy is pursuing a similar legal framework that would allow European companies to retrieve minerals from asteroids in space and sell them on Earth.
Because of a lack of international agreements on how to exploit asteroids, many investors are leery of backing space mining ventures, according to Chris Lewicki, the president and chief executive of Planetary Resources, a company that intends to develop the emerging field.
"If you are out on a moon or asteroid, who is in charge?" he asked. "We really need to start considering these things. More and more commercial activity and personal activity is outside the boundaries of a country. This is not a lifetime away. It's happening right now."
So how much material wealth is floating in outer space? Nobody knows for sure.
The website Asterank, which British real estate consultancy Knight Frank cited in a 2014 report about the value of space travel and asteroid mining, lists a host of asteroids worth upwards of $100 trillion due to the minerals they are believed to contain.
Launching into space costs around $20 million, said Frantz, so finding a mother lode that's otherwise free for the taking could be lucrative.
But one of the biggest risks in space mining isn't a lack of cash or technical glitches that might cause spacecraft to explode — it's coming back with so much of a mineral that dumping one's payload onto commodity markets could cause market prices to crash, which would undercut the value of heading into the stars in the first place.
Frantz has a solution to this problem.
"We're talking not only gold and platinum, but diamonds," he said, referring to the abundance of precious stones that are stockpiled by companies like De Beers in order to maintain prices. "We don't want to flood the market with something. We could park it in space and bring it back a little at a time."
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