SAN FRANCISCO — Few events at the NASA Ames Research Center draw the crowd that greeted Luxembourg’s royal delegation April 12. The Grand Duchy’s prince, princess and deputy prime minister met with NASA officials, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors to discuss Luxembourg’s campaign to harvest valuable materials from asteroids, moons or planets.
“We are looking to extend and to build new, strong and mutually beneficial ties,” Prince Guillaume told the audience gathered for a panel discussion and reception.
In 2016, Luxembourg began inviting partners to its campaign, called SpaceResources.lu, which continues to evolve as it focuses on the financial, regulatory and legal issues facing firms intent on space mining.
For U.S. companies, Luxembourg offers enticing opportunities. Companies that establish offices and conduct work there are eligible for research and development money, and equity investment. They also will qualify for European Space Agency funding and gain access to the European market, Etienne Schneider, Luxembourg’s deputy prime minister and economy minister told SpaceNews.
Last year, Luxembourg announced plans to establish SpaceResources.lu with 200 million Euros. Now, the country is preparing to form a space agency that pairs government with private capital to invest another 70 million to 100 million euros in promising ventures, Schneider said.
Without Luxembourg it would be difficult for space miners to find capital because “this is a decades long investment,” Bill Miller, chief executive for Deep Space Industries, an asteroid-mining company based in Mountain View, California, said during the April 12 panel discussion. “None of us really knows exactly when we will extract a lot of material from asteroids. Rarely do venture funds have a decades-long timeframe.”
Deep Space Industries is working with Luxembourg on Prospector-X, a mission to test technology in low Earth orbit that could be used on future asteroid-hunting excursions. Planetary Resources of Redmond, Washington, Tokyo’s ispace and Germany’s OHB Venture Capital also have joined SpaceResources.lu.
As Luxembourg courts additional corporate partners, its leaders are drafting laws and regulations for the new industry. Luxembourg is scheduled to enact legislation this summer to give Luxembourg corporations ownership of the metals, water or gases they mine in space. In contrast to similar legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in 2015, Luxembourg’s law does not only cover corporations if a majority of their shares are owned locally.
“It is easy to calculate that even a relatively small metal asteroid has enough platinum group metals to be worth — and I use a very technical term — a bazillion dollars or Euros. I don’t know what the exchange rate is right now, but they are roughly similar.” — Peter Worden
Meanwhile, Schneider is meeting with representatives from other nations, including the United States, Japan, China, Portugal, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, to talk about coordinating work instead of “everybody spending money on the same research,” Schneider said.
Schneider hopes these discussions will lead to multilateral agreements and eventually prompt the United Nations to update the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which does not clearly address the question of whether companies can claim ownership of space resources. The act is vague on that issue “because at the time it was signed people were not thinking about using space resources,” Schneider said.
No threat to anybody
Luxembourg is in a particularly good position to lead this global effort because it is a prosperous nation with an extensive space heritage, dating back to 1985 when the government helped form SES, Europe’s first private satellite operator, said Pete Worden, the former NASA Ames Director who chairs the Breakthrough Prize Foundation.
Luxembourg also attracts less suspicion than a superpower would if it called for revision of the Outer Space Treaty. With its 1,000-person military force, it is “unlikely that Luxembourg is going to be regarded as a threat to anybody,” Worden, a member of the SpaceResources.lu advisory board, said during the April 12 panel discussion.
Worden said he is honored to advise the board because mining space resources are essential to “human expansion into the solar system.” Asteroids could become an important source of water to support life and provide fuel for exploration missions. In addition, asteroid metals could help pay for further exploration because they are valuable.
“It is easy to calculate that even a relatively small metal asteroid has enough platinum group metals to be worth — and I use a very technical term — a bazillion dollars or Euros,” Worden said. “I don’t know what the exchange rate is right now, but they are roughly similar. That’s why investment in Luxembourg is a good deal right now for Americans.”