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Out-of-the-world business plan: Luxembourg wants to mine asteroids in Space

Asad Ali | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:38 IST

The news:

  • Luxembourg announces radical initiatives to mine resources like platinum in space off asteroids
  • Last year in Nov, President Obama signed a space Act that ensured all American mining ventures in space are legal

Why it\'s a big deal:

  • Asteroids are platinum-rich and platinum costs about US$29,000 per kilogram currently
  • Space mining could make refuelling a far more cost effective process for rockets and other space vehicles

More in the story:

  • Two US companies are already preparing to help nations like Luxembourg interested in deep space mining
  • What the landscape for asteroid mining looks like in the immediate future

Because the world is not enough. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, one of Europe's smallest and least populous countries, last week announced its grandest plan yet: mining asteroids in outer space.

The Luxembourg government annoucned a slew of measures to make the country a major European hub in the exploration and use of space resources.

One of their most ambitious initiatives? The development of a legal regulatory framework to oversee any of the nation's future ownership of minerals extracted from Near Earth Objects (NEO's) such as asteroids.

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Approximately 13,000 'near-Earth asteroids' have been officially recorded by researchers. Most are rich in platinum, iridium, and palladium. And at about US $29,000 per kg for platinum, you can see why they'd go pretty much anywhere to find it.

The asteroids or similar celestial bodies might also contain water, which could be split into hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel. Since that is a supremely expensive concoction on earth, countries like Luxembourg seem to be pitching for the space freebies on offer. In fact Planetary Resources, one of the companies in the race to strike a hit in the space mining sector, has gone on record describing asteroids as "the low-hanging fruit of the solar system."

Here's why:

Luxembourg's Ministry of the Economy quotes the country's deputy PM and Minister of the Economy, Etienne Schneider, as saying that, "Our aim is to open access to a wealth of previously unexplored mineral resources on lifeless rocks hurling through space, without damaging natural habitats. 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."

In the right place at the right time

Think a tiny nation like Luxembourg is shooting above its weight? Not really. The country is home to Societe Europeenne des Satellites (SES), one of the world's largest commercial satellite telecommunications company. The country is also the HQ of Intelsat, the broadcast services provider that owns one of the largest fleet of commercial satellites in the world.

They're chasing big brother America on this one, though - last November, President Obama signed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) - a mouthful that actually ensures American asteroid mining is a legal activity.

The document dramatically loosens the regulatory reign for private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic from US government oversight for the next eight years.

It also outlines property rights for celestial objects so that required resources - be they rare metals or water - can be extracted. However, it does not let any company claim ownership of any asteroid or celestial body.

Not exactly a belated twang of ethics here, though.

They are merely conforming to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that prohibits any country in the world from staking official claim on planets, asteroids and such.

Big brother, small brother

Ironically, Luxembourg is eyeing two private American companies to help their plans along: Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources. The latter is financed in part by Larry Page, the CEO of Google's parent company Alphabet Inc. And both companies are seemingly excited at the prospect of an out-of-the-world business mission.

The statement released by Luxembourg's Ministry of Economy quotes the president and CEO of Planetary Resources, Chris Lewicki as saying, "we commend the Government of Luxembourg in leading the world by establishing this new resource industry, thereby enabling the economic development of near-Earth asteroid resources."

His counterpart at Deep Space Industries, co-founder Rick Tumlinson said, "By opening up the resources of space, Luxembourg will help take the pressure off the Earth."

A new hole in the environment?

Both literally and figuratively, no one is sure of the cost of taking drilling operations from earth to celestial bodies.

That hasn't stopped massive funds being allocated for such attempts.

Most recently, attempts were made to land on a comet about a year ago: the Philae probe (part of European Space Agency's Rosetta mission) crashlanded on a comet and managed to transmit some data back. It then fell into what scientists have called "a long silence." And the chances of re-establishing contact with Philae are now slim.

In the current context, the chances of actually landing securely on an asteroid, extracting minerals and flying back to earth seem rather, ahem, far out.

But it's certainly safe to say the fear of the unknown is less consuming than the desire for a new era in capitalism. Will this be earth's undoing or its saving? The answers are all up in the air.

Also read: It's not a twin, but the Earth-like planet we just found is definitely family

First published: 11 February 2016, 6:19 IST
Asad Ali @asadali1989

Asad Ali is another cattle class journalist trying to cover Current affairs and Culture when he isn't busy not saving the world.