There are thousands of asteroids in Earth’s vicinity, some containing vast amounts of water and metals that could be utilized for use in space and back on Earth. Only problem is, we don’t have any good methods of accessing them at the moment.
That could be all set to change though, as Luxembourg (yes, the small European nation) has announced it will invest in companies that want to try and mine asteroids. They are offering both a financial incentive and access to their considerable infrastructure for companies to carry out research and development.
“Our aim is to open access to a wealth of previously unexplored mineral resources on lifeless rocks hurling through space, without damaging natural habitats,” Luxembourg's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy Étienne Schneider said in a statement. “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 move might seem like a strange one. After all, Luxembourg isn’t exactly known for having a booming space agency. But the country is actually heavily involved in the space industry; it is home to the world’s largest commercial satellite telecommunications company, SES, and has offices for Intelsat, the second biggest.
And it seems the country is now keen to get involved in what some are predicting could be a multi-billion dollar industry, or even multi-trillion. Certain resources from asteroids could be used both on Earth and in space, although the cost-effectiveness of the former is questionable. More likely is that asteroid mining will support infrastructure in space, providing spacecraft with water for fuel and perhaps useful minerals and metals for construction.
Two companies in America, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, are already making roads towards one day mining asteroids. The latter has already launched a prototype spacecraft ahead of a launch of a true prospecting satellite in the coming years to find asteroids worthy of mining.
Asteroid mining could prove useful in future space exploration. Image used with permission via SpaceAnswers
One other area that Luxembourg will help companies with is the legalities of asteroid mining. Under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, no entity may own any cosmic body – be it a planet, moon, an asteroid, or something else. But the technicalities of this treaty remain questionable, and many now consider it to refer only to a whole body – and not its useful resources.
"These rules prohibit the appropriation of space and celestial bodies but they do not exclude the appropriation of materials which can be found there," said Schneider, reported the BBC. "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."
No companies have yet come forward and said they will make use of Luxembourg’s generous offer, although Schneider said that Planetary Resources and, somewhat surprisingly, SpaceX, had expressed an interest. But it opens the door for more to get involved in what may one day be a lucrative industry.