Wednesday

31st Aug 2016

Feature

Luxembourg keen to be asteroid miners' haven

  • Asteroids are leftovers of failed attempts to form planets and can contain water or platinum (Photo: ESA - P.Carril)

Luxembourg is known for being a country with one of Europe's most business-friendly tax regimes, which has attracted a multitude of multinationals selling Earthly products from soft drinks to self-assembly furniture.

But recently, the Grand Duchy has embarked on a voyage to become a hub for companies in a more celestial business: mining asteroids.

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  • To date, asteroid mining has occurred only in science fiction, like the videogame EVE Online (Photo: WolfieK (Wolf Hartnell))

Its mission: to become the first European country that gives private firms legal certainty they will own resources they extract in space.

“In the near future, we seek to create an attractive framework to give assurances to investors interested in building a business by exploiting natural resources available in space,” deputy prime minister Etienne Schneider said in a speech on 3 February, announcing the scheme.

“The current international legislation was adopted in the 60's, when space mining was mere science fiction. Today, these rules prohibit an appropriation of space and celestial bodies, but they do not exclude the appropriation of materials which can be found there,” added Schneider, who is also minister of the economy.

He referred to the Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, which second article said that outer space, “including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

It means that claiming territory is forbidden, but extracting resources is not. However, it is also not explicitly allowed.

While mining was considered science fiction in the sixties of the previous century, there are now several companies that are planning to extract valuable resources from asteroids.

There are millions of asteroids, which are leftovers of failed attempts to form planets. They can contain water, and materials like iron, nickel, cobalt and platinum.

“One 300-metre asteroid with platinum group metals on it, has more platinum on it than has been mined in the history of humankind. That is just one asteroid”, said Peter Marquez, vice-president for global engagement at Planetary Resources, a US company that plans to mine asteroids.

Those metals are scarce on Earth and can be used in advanced medical equipment in cancer treatments, Marquez told this website.

But not everything will be brought back to Earth. Companies like Planetary Resources also want to be a sort of gas station for space explorers.

Bringing stuff from Earth can be quite expensive, so why not pick some up along the way?

Water will be important for human space exploration missions, both to drink and to use as rocket fuel. Materials like iron can be used in outer space construction, for example to build a base on the Moon, or on your way to Mars.

“We are a company, and we are a company that is based on making a profit and a return on our investors' money,” said Marquez.

“But our mission is one where we are developing resources to allow humankind to explore the solar system, to develop new technology, and also to bring back resources that will help not just the bottom line of Planetary Resources, but help the entire Earth.”

US in front

Last year, the US became the first country in the world to give Planetary Resources, and competitors like Deep Space Industries, what it needed: legal certainty.

A bill, signed by president Barack Obama in November, said that any US citizen “engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell it according to applicable law, including US international obligations”.

In other words: you mine it, you own it.

Asteroid mining companies would be happy if other countries took a similar approach, and have been lobbying governments to persuade them to enshrine a similar principle in law.

Marquez said he has good relations with the government of Luxembourg.

“Myself and our company's CEO Chris Lewicki, we first met deputy prime minister Schneider at [Nasa's] Ames Research Centere in California in the Bay Area almost two years ago where he was attending a conference on space resources,” he noted.

“At that point he was just interested to see what this is all about. It piqued his interest. Since that time we've stayed engaged with the government of Luxembourg.”

Schneider was not available for an interview with this website, but his ministry put forward a source who was not allowed to speak on the record.

He told EUobserver that Luxembourg launched a legal interpretative study “a few months ago” to see if the current legal framework provided enough reassurances to asteroid mining companies.

Space rush?

“The question is: do we need a new law or to adapt an existing one, or, one result could also be, that we need to do nothing. This decision will be taken in the next few months,” the contact said, adding that Luxembourg is aiming to have the legal framework in place before the end of 2016.

“I know of course that is extremely challenging,” he added, noting that he agrees with the notion that the rush is somewhat unnecessary, considering that it will take many years before the first space mining operation is under way.

The source confirmed that the desire to hurry was political rather than legal, but was not worried about the prospect of national governments each creating their own legal framework.

“We are still very much in favour of finding an international agreement and will certainly also work in that direction,” the Luxembourgish source said.

“In the meantime we have decided … we cannot wait for several years until we have an international solution.”

Space lawyer Tanja Masson noted that with their bill on owning space resources, the Americans have given “one possible interpretation” to the second article of the Outer Space Treaty, cited earlier.

“It is important that countries agree on an international level to a common interpretation, and that we arrive at some type of governance system under which space resources can be mined,” said Masson, who is deputy director of the International Institute of Air and Space Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

“Eventually there should be some type of international consultations to prevent very different national laws around the world,” she added.

Time left

The Luxembourgish source noted that any law in his country “is not cast in stone” and can be changed later if international discussions require it.

“We are still many years from a real mining operation on asteroids, so by then we should be able to find a way to deal with this,” he said.

By taking these steps, Luxembourg is showing to companies and investors that it is open for space business.

The American company Deep Space Industries already has an office in Luxembourg, and Planetary Resources' Marquez called Luxembourg “a great place to work”, because of the possibility to hire highly skilled people and the presence of a “supportive government”.

Neither of the three interviewed experts know of any European company which is as advanced as American companies in planning to mine asteroids.

But Marquez noted he “wouldn't be surprised” if one or two companies are created as a consequence of Luxembourg's initiative.

For its part, the European Commission told this website that it has no plans to get involved in space exploration and space exploitation - that is the field of national governments and the European Space Agency (ESA).

“I think that some EU countries are very interested in this activity and others are not, so I do not necessarily see the need for the EU to regulate this,” said space law expert Masson.

Moon station

Meanwhile, the ESA’s chief sees some potential in Luxembourg's legal exercise to advance his plan to build a permanent station on the Moon.

“If we go to another body in our solar system, we should not bring all the stuff from Earth to there,” ESA director-general Johann-Dietrich Woerner told EUobserver in a recent interview.

“If we go to the Moon, we should use the Moon material to build something, or to use the material to produce propulsion. Therefore to have a legal basis for this, is good.”

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