Forget the Moon or moving to Mars. Mining asteroids for precious metals is the new space race.
The tiny European country of Luxembourg, which is mostly farmland and forests, has joined the frontrunners in a new space race, this time to the asteroids near Earth.
The country’s Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister Étienne Schneider revealed on Thursday his government’s intentions to legalise and fund the mining of rare minerals on the “lifeless rocks hurling through space”.
“Our aim is to open access to a wealth of previously unexplored mineral resources on lifeless rocks hurtling through space, without damaging natural habitats,” Mr Schneider said in a statement.
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This as-of-yet untapped asteroid mining industry will ultimately target Near Earth Objects (NEOs), or asteroids, located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter in the solar system.
“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,” Mr Schneider said.
“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.”
As part of its push to attract space mining companies, Luxembourg will launch the SpaceResources.lu initiative that will involve building legal framework to ensure future ownership of minerals extracted from asteroids, as well as investing in space-related research and development projects.
Jean-Jacques Dordain, former director-general of the European Space Agency and new adviser to the Luxembourg government, said SpaceResources.lu was proof of Europe’s innovative capabilities.
“This initiative is a clear demonstration that Europeans are innovative and able to take risks when the stakes are high. While futuristic, the project is based on solid grounds, i.e. technical prowess that already exists in Europe and around the world.”
Why mine asteroids?
Late last year, during an appearance on ABC’s Q&A, the popular American cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson explained why companies might mine in space.
“There are more natural resources on asteroids than have ever been mined in the history of the Earth,” he said.
Minerals found on asteroids may include nickel, iron and rare-Earth elements such as gold, tungsten and platinum. Methane, or natural gas, is also present in some asteroids.
Later in the ABC program, Mr Tyson suggested a benefit beyond profit: world peace.
“So in 100 years […] all wars over limited resources are over because we have access to the unlimited resources of our backyard and that new backyard is our solar system.”
The process could also aid in the exploration of distant planets, as acknowledged by Mr Dordain.
“Exploring space requires use of space resources, because if you have to bring every kilo of water, fuel and food from Earth, you will not get very far,” he said.
The race is well and truly on
In recent years, Europe has come out as a key contender for space exploration, with the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission successfully landing the Philae robot on the constantly moving target of Comet 67P. (The world said goodbye to Philae just last week).
The US is also in the race. Last year, the US congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which directly challenged the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 that designated space as public property.
This new law gives US-based companies the go-ahead to begin work towards harvesting resources in space and, ultimately, space exploration.
Actual space mining is probably at least a decade away, but the moves of Luxembourg and the US are preparing the way.