Luxembourg to support space mining

By Jonathan Amos
BBC Science Correspondent

image captionNear-Earth asteroids could be a source of high-value minerals

The Luxembourg government has signalled its intention to get behind the mining of asteroids in space.

It is going to support R&D in technologies that would make it possible and may even invest directly in some companies.

The Grand Duchy will also put in place a legal framework to give operators who are based in the country the confidence to go about their business.

Former European Space Agency boss Jean-Jacques Dordain is to be an adviser.

Home talent

He told reporters on Wednesday that space mining was no longer science fiction in the pages of a Jules Verne novel; that the basic technologies - of landing and returning materials from asteroids - had essentially been proven.

And he urged European entrepreneurs to follow the example of start-up American companies that had already begun to consider how they could exploit the expensive metals, rare elements and other valuable resources in space bodies.

"Things are moving in the United States and it was high time there was an initiative in Europe, and I am glad the first initiative is coming from Luxembourg," he said. "It will give no excuse for European investors to go to California."

Two notable American companies, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, have begun assembling teams to design spacecraft systems that can survey potential targets and eventually grab ores at, or just below, their surface.

Legal framework

Last year, their activities were bolstered by US legislation that sought to cement the rights of any American operations that started to exploit asteroids.

Some commentators at the time suggested this legislation might contravene the UN's Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967. But Luxembourg's economic minister, Etienne Schneider, is relaxed about the move.

"These rules prohibit the appropriation of space and celestial bodies but they do not exclude the appropriation of materials which can be found there," he said.

"Roughly, the situation is equivalent to the rights of a trawler in international waters. Fishermen own the fish they catch but they do not own the ocean."

Prospecting in space

  • 13,500 so-called near-Earth asteroids have been discovered to date
  • But prospectors would have to identify the right types to mine
  • Of particular interest would be those high in platinum-group metals
  • Platinum, iridium, palladium, etc are rare at the Earth's surface
  • Dissolvable in molten iron, the metals have sunk to Earth's core
  • But their surface abundance should be greater on some asteroids
  • Materials like water and iron could also support in-space activity
  • Water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel

Although a small nation, Luxembourg has a prominent position is space activity.

It is the headquarters of SES, the world's largest commercial satellite telecommunications company, which relays thousands of TV stations around the world. Intelsat, the second biggest company by revenue, also has offices in the country.

Luxembourg now wants to become a hub for European space mining companies as well.

It too will pass legislation so that these firms have confidence in their rights to extract resources.

"In the very near future, we will come forward with a strategic action plan defining concrete measures for the coming years," said Mr Schneider.

"In this context, the government of Luxembourg is willing to invest in relevant R&D projects. We are willing as well to invest into the companies themselves. Not all, of course, but if a company seems very interesting to us, we are willing and able to invest into the capital," he told BBC News.

"What is more, we have the national investment bank, which is chaired by myself and the minister of finance, and this bank can give credits to these companies; and we have set up funds that will be eager to invest in this activity."

Over the past decade, space missions mounted by international agencies have tracked, landed and returned samples from asteroids.

The next phase would be to scale up this activity, to try to extract and return sufficient materials - in quantity and value - that the enormous financial outlay required just to get to an asteroid can be recovered, and ideally exceeded. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos