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Why Luxembourg is getting into asteroid mining

The country's agreement with a US-based space exploration company sets it up to lead the commercialization of space resources. Mining could begin by 2020.

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    An illustration of a spacecraft related to asteroid mining.
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Luxembourg’s government last week signed an agreement that further established the small western European nation as a leader in the developing business of mining near-Earth asteroids for gold, platinum, and water.

In the process, Luxembourg will be working with a private company to test new technology using small, robotic spacecraft. 

In an announcement by its economic ministry, Luxembourg affirmed its deal with the private US-based Deep Space Industries (DSI) space exploration company and the Luxembourg banking institution Société Nationale de Crédit et d’Investissement (SNCI).

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The memorandum of understanding between the trio outlines "the exploration, use and commercialization of resources from Near Earth Objects (NEOs)" within the spaceresources.lu initiative created by the government, while highlighting Luxembourg's desire to get in on NEO resource collection.

Earlier this year, Luxembourg announced its intentions to move forward with its asteroid mining program, promising a legal framework providing for the "open access to a wealth of previously unexplored mineral resources on lifeless rocks hurling through space," according to Étienne Schneider, deputy prime minister and economic and trade minister of the Grand Duchy.

"Luxembourg makes a huge difference by stepping in," DSI chairman Rick Tumlinson told the Financial Times. "It immediately shatters the myths that asteroid mining is either the fantasy of a wealthy Silicon Valley cabal or an imperialist American plot to take over the solar system."

The asteroid mining business has already been around for years terrestrially: gathering resources from downed objects from space provides easier access to some metals than traditional mining. The off-world industry could eventually provide harvested materials to be applied across a variety of fields and provide trillions of dollars worth of resources.

The most sought-after would be water or ice taken from NEOs to support life and use as fuel, but recovering metals and other compounds would also be valuable to asteroid farmers. "Access to these resources is the key to living and working in space," according to DSI.

Some argue that Luxembourg's efforts to mine from NEOs violate international law, including the United Nations' Outer Space Treaty, but other states have already moved to allow space mining and resource ownership. The US, for example, already signed into law rules that allow for the "commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources" from asteroids and other objects, while still prohibiting state sovereignty of space objects.

Schneider equates his nation's proposed regulations with "the rights of a trawler in international waters."

"Fishermen own the fish they catch but they do not own the ocean," he explained to BBC.

The new agreement with DSI will set up technology development related to asteroid mining and space exploration in Luxembourg, with funding from its government's space and R&D programs, and SNCI. The first major goal of the DSI pact will be the development of the Prospector-X nano-craft, set to be built in Luxembourg and used as a testing vehicle for DSI's planned Prospector-1 exploration.

Prospector-X will act as an evaluation for DSI's various space navigation technologies ahead of its first asteroid assessments. The company will look at Prospector-X's propulsion system, which uses water, its operational systems, radiation protection, and 3D imaging and navigation capacities. If that initial mission proves to be a success, official mining forays into space could take place as soon as 2020.

The American asteroid mining company Planetary Resources, Inc. last year tested its first asteroid probing craft, deploying it from the International Space Station to test its technological capacities. Luxembourg is also working to establish space commerce relationships with Planetary Resources and US-based aerospace company SpaceX.

"Separate negotiations to formalize our relationship with other companies active in this field are underway. Our aim is to attract space research activities and technological capabilities to Luxembourg, which is home to an increasingly important space sector as part of our continuous efforts to diversify the national economy," Mr. Schneider said.

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