The government of Luxembourg announced Wednesday that the country will be investing in the as-yet-unrealized industry of asteroid mining.
The tiny European country will be funding research into the extraction of minerals from objects in space, working on legal and regulatory frameworks to govern such activities and, potentially, directly investing in companies active in the field. The nation's ministry of the economy says in a statement that the measures are meant "to position Luxembourg as a European hub in the exploration and use of space resources."
It's a futuristic move, but not a wholly startling one. Luxembourg is already home to SES, a satellite operator, and has previously moved to boost its international high-tech profile.
Exploiting the natural resources of asteroids and other near-Earth objects (NEOs) has long been a dream of investors, inventors and futurists (not to mention science-fiction authors). Some technologists believe it's only a matter of time before asteroid-mining shifts from idea to industry.
There are numerous minerals found on asteroids that might profitably be mined. Eric Anderson, co-founder of Planetary Resources, told Ira Flatow in 2012 that some asteroids are rich in nickel and iron; others in methane, better known as natural gas. Some contain large amounts of water, which, while not profitable to return to Earth, could be useful for supplying rockets that are already in space with hydrogen and oxygen.
But there are a few issues. First, of course, there are technical challenges involved in finding promising targets, sending unmanned spacecraft to mine them and returning those resources safely to Earth.
Humans have yet to successfully collect even a proof-of-concept asteroid sample. A decade ago, Japan's space agency sent a missile on an asteroid-sampling mission, but the craft crash-landed on the asteroid and couldn't collect samples as planned. It did, however, return to Earth with a small sample of the asteroid that apparently lodged in the craft during the crash.
Japan has a follow-up sampling mission that is currently en route to an asteroid, and private companies and NASA are working on their own plans for asteroid-sampling probes.
To help asteroid mining become a practical possibility, Luxembourg plans to fund research and development and potentially invest in individual companies, using money dedicated to the national space budget.
The second issue is a legal one. Asteroids are governed by the Outer Space Treaty, nearly 50 years old now, which says space and space objects don't belong to any individual nation. What that means for mining activities has never been tested in international courts because, well, nobody's managed to mine an asteroid yet.
But there's a fair amount of uncertainty, as Joanne Gabrynowicz, a director at the International Institute of Space Law, told NPR's Here & Now last February.
"Anybody who wants to go to an asteroid now and extract a resource is facing a large legal open question," she said.
The U.S. passed a law near the end of last year, the Space Act of 2015, which says American companies are permitted to harvest resources from outer space. The law asserts that extracting minerals from an extraterrestrial object isn't a declaration of sovereignty. But it's not clear what happens if another country passes a contradictory law, or if treaties are arranged that cover extraction of minerals from space.
Luxembourg hopes to address this issue, too, with a formal legal framework of its own — possibly constructed with international input — to ensure that those who harvest minerals can be confident that they'll own what they bring home.
"The aim is to stimulate economic growth on Earth and offer new horizons in space exploration," Luxembourg's ministry of the economy writes.
Investing in space innovation — whether or not asteroid mining pans out — might be valuable for a small nation looking to raise its profile. And if asteroid mines become a reality, the profits could be enormous.
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