The government of Luxembourg says it will work with space entrepreneurs to open up access to a wealth of rare minerals and resources in space.

To do this, it plans to partner with and invest in futuristic research projects to develop both new space mining technology and to build on existing technology such as autonomous robots and auto navigation systems.  

"In the long-term, space resources could lead to a thriving new space economy and human expansion into the solar system," Etienne Schneider, Luxembourg's economy minister, told a press conference.

Asteroid mining could potentially make deep space exploration missions easier as supplies of materials wouldn't have to be blasted into space from Earth.

“Luxembourg is taking first steps to make sure that resources will be available in outer space for supporting and building up those manned missions to planets beyond Mars to new territories,” says Yves Elsen of the Luxembourg Space Cluster. “The reason is that there are a lot of raw materials to be found on asteroids — for example, water under the surface in the form of ice -- but if you have water you can split out hydrogen and oxygen, which you need for rocket propulsion systems,"

More than 13,000 asteroids have so far been identified moving close to Earth. Scientists believe that many of them are rich in highly valuable metals like platinum and palladium. As expected these potentially abundant asteroid resources are luring some American start-up companies to compete to be the first to visit these asteroids.

 “This is the beginning of the gold rush in space, and we’re delighted to see Luxembourg’s leadership,” says Chris Lewicki, the CEO of Planetary Resources, one of several US companies hoping to ramp up to actual asteroid mining operations. Lewicki says that by the decade of the 2020s, it will likely be possible to land autonomous spacecraft on asteroids, to drill into their surfaces, and extract very profitable quantities of special ores to bring back to Earth.

Asteroid mining missions will undoubtedly be technologically complicated and exceedingly difficult, but Lewicki sounds confident.

“We can use robotic technology, the same technology that helped Rovers land and drive on Mars, the same technology that’s helping autonomous cars drive around, is something that we can actually do, without ever needing to have a human go, we can explore and develop these resources on asteroids.” 

He notes that a robotic asteroid mission has certain advantages over a manned lunar mission. 

“The moon’s got a lot of gravity that you have to fight in order to land on it and come back from it, but asteroids have very little gravity, so you dock with them, and that makes them much more attractive targets for rocket scientists going out to look for resources in space.”

As futuristic as it all sounds, Planetary Resources can already point to successes. Its Arkyd 3 Reflight spacecraft deployed successfully from the International Space Station last year and carried out a 90-day mission that featured some of the avionics, control systems and software, which the company plans to incorporate into future spacecraft to prospect for resource-rich near-Earth asteroids.

Another space mining company hopeful is preparing as well.

In a press release, the California-based Deep Space Industries praised Luxembourg for its “unique foresight and their deep understanding of the future of the space industry. This initiative shows they are uniquely positioned to be a major player in the next space economy that is currently gaining traction around the world. DSI is proud to see the leadership of our friends and partners as they help pave the critical path to a future of unlimited resources.”

Rick Tumlinson, who heads DSI, said “The future is built by the bold, and once again, as it did in telecommunications and other areas of technology, Luxembourg is showing the sort of boldness that moves the world forward.”

From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International