The idea of mining asteroids for resources like metals or water has been around for decades, and it became a well-known concept during the 1970s. Actually extracting materials and bringing them back to Earth, though, is a challenging and costly proposition. Some exciting projects have cropped up over the last few years, but we’re nowhere near the next gold rush. Enter Luxembourg.
Everyone needs a niche hobby, and the tiny country (population roughly 550,000) has set its sights firmly on space mining. Maybe it will be the biggest teeny country in the world if the bet pays off someday. On Friday, Luxembourg committed about $227 million to asteroid-mining research and industry support. The country wants major companies in the field to open offices in Luxembourg and make it the hub of space mining innovation.
“We have a first budget to get started but if we need more money, we will be able to provide it,” Etienne Schneider, Luxembourg’s economy minister said in a press conference as reported by Reuters. Luxembourg’s government did something similar in the 1980s, investing in the Société Européenne des Satellites (now called SES) to create the first private satellite operator in Europe. Today, SES is still based in Luxembourg and has more than 50 active communications satellites.
The former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Pete Worden, will advise Luxembourg’s space mining initiative, and his outlook seems to mirror the government’s stance. “I believe the future lies in a robust space economy that is driven by commercial interests,” he said, according to Ars Technica.
One question about asteroid mining has been the legal status of operations in space and the resulting goods that would come back. In November, President Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, and Luxembourg started work on a similar law in February. BBC News reported that former European Space Agency head Jean-Jacques Dordain said at the time, “Things are moving in the United States and it was high time there was an initiative in Europe. ... It will give no excuse for European investors to go to California.”
You may not think about space mining unless you’re watching Alien or Outland, but for some this legislative movement has been a long time coming. “You have companies that are chomping at the bit to clarify the rules,” prominent space lawyer Joanne Gabrynowicz told Slate in 2014. “I do think there could be opportunities in speaking with other countries about asteroid mining.”
Two major space mining companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, will both establish offices in Luxembourg, and officials claim that these groups could be doing surveying for real mining missions within three years. Maybe you’ll have Luxembourg to thank for your next piece of platinum jewelry.