Tiny Luxembourg seeks global leadership in asteroid mining

Luxembourg announced plans to launch a space mining industry, quite a mighty feat for the small European country.

Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters/File
Meteorites sit on a display table at the Deep Space Industries announcement of plans for the world's first fleet of commercial asteroid-prospecting spacecraft at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, California, January 22, 2013.

Luxembourg is serious about space, the country’s Ministry of the Economy announced Wednesday. 

The European country, which is smaller than the US state of Rhode Island, announced the first government initiative in Europe aimed at mining asteroids for minerals. The country says it will begin developing the legal framework necessary to extract and own minerals from space objects like asteroids. 

Proponents support asteroid mining as a sustainable solution to mineral mining on Earth. Not only would space minerals reduce the need for Earth’s diminishing resources, but it would also further outer space exploration. 

“Our aim is to open access to a wealth of previously unexplored mineral resources on lifeless rocks hurling through space, without damaging natural habitats,” Etienne Schneider, Luxembourg’s economy minister, said in a statement Wednesday. “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.” 

When Luxembourg first announced their operations, some critics claimed it violated the United Nation’s 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

Regarded as one of the most significant achievements in UN international law, the 1967 treaty maintained peace and cooperation between UN countries during the first great race towards space exploration. 

“Peaceful activities of space exploration and international cooperation, carried out under the scope of the Outer Space Treaty and other United Nations space instruments, had a modernizing effect on the arms race in outer space, which could have led humankind to the brink of war and complete destruction of civilization,” writes Vladimir Kopal, former Legal Subcommittee chairman of the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in the UN's Audiovisual Library of International Law.

Mr. Schneider says Luxembourg’s move is in accordance with the treaty. 

“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 explained to the BBC. “Roughly, the situation is equivalent to the rights of a trawler in international waters. Fisherman own the fish they catch but they do not own the ocean.” 

And this is not Luxembourg’s first out-of-this-world endeavor.

The small European country is home to SES headquarters, one of the world’s largest communication satellite operators. SES owns and operates more than 50 geostationary satellites, transmitting more than 7,100 TV channels to 1.1 billion people around the world. 

Luxembourg’s legal pursuit comes after the United States passed the SPACE Act of 2015, aimed at encouraging the private sector to invest in space mineral mining of meteors and asteroids. Through the SPACE Act, any minerals mined in space legally belong to the American citizen who brings them to Earth. And while only US companies such as Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources have thus far attempted asteroid mining, US leaders seem congratulatory towards Luxembourg, not competitive. 

“We are excited by this visionary initiative on the part of Luxembourg,” Deep Space Chairman Rich Tumlinson said in a statement. “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.”

But US space exploration companies could feel the competition if Luxembourg’s mining initiative gets off the ground.

“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,” Former European Space Agency leader Jean-Jacques Dordain told the BBC. “It will give no excuse for European investors to go to California.” 

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