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Will Luxembourg Lead the Race for Space Mining?

The tiny nation announced its private industry partners for asteroid mining

(Deep Space Industries/Bryan Versteeg)
smithsonian.com

Luxembourg is a tiny country with big aspirations. The the Rhode-Island-sized Grand Duchy hosts less than 600,000 people, but boasts one of the highest per capita incomes. While it's roaring economy is currently bouyed by banking, the government recently announced its newest industry: asteroid mining. Now, the country is teaming up with two high-profile companies to get the project moving along.

Clive Cookson at The Financial Times reports that in February the government of Luxembourg announced their intention to invest in companies interested in mining water, precious metals and minerals from near-earth asteroids. It also said it was willing to dedicate financial resources, development grants and its research capability to asteroid mining, although it wouldn’t give exact figures.

“Our aim is to open access to a wealth of previously unexplored mineral resources, on lifeless rocks hurtling through space, without damaging natural habitats,” Luxembourg’s deputy prime minister, Étienne Schneider said in a statement at the time. “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. At first, our aim is to carry out research in this area, which at a later stage can lead to more concrete activities in space.”

Since that announcement, Schneider tells Cookson that interest has boomed. “Space agencies and companies from around the world have contacted us about collaboration,” he says.

In fact, Luxembourg revealed that it is in negotiations to fund two U.S. space firms. It is working with Deep Space Industries, which is developing asteroid mining technology through its Prospector-X platform. The small spacecraft, which Cookson says will be built in Luxembourg, will be a project to test the electronics, navigation systems and imaging capabilities needed to move forward with asteroid mining.

“Luxembourg makes a huge difference by stepping in,” Rick Tumlinson, DSI chairman, tells Cookson. “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.”

Schneider also revealed that his nation of half-a-million citizens is also negotiating with Planetary Resources, an asteroid-mining company backed by Silicon Valley luminaries like Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. That company is currently working on resilient, low-cost avionics and communications systems that could eventually take mining robots into the harsh radiation conditions surrounding near-earth asteroids.

It may seem pie-in-the-sky, but the potential payoff is huge. Asteroids could offer a near-infinite supply of precious metals like gold and rare platinum-group metals, like iridium, osmium and rhodium which are hard to find on Earth but are important in high-tech applications. Luxembourg and its partners acknowledge that extracting metals and ice from asteroids is still well into the future. For now, they simply hope to get Prospector-X into space by 2020.

The project’s biggest achievement so far is giving Europe a little more street cred in the 21st Century’s industrial space race. “While futuristic, the project is based on solid grounds, ie technical prowess that already exists in Europe and around the world.” Jean-Jacques Dordain, former director general of the European Space Agency and adviser to Luxembourg’s government on the project said in a statement. “This initiative is a clear demonstration that Europeans are innovative and able to take risks when the stakes are high.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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