When Etienne Schneider became Luxembourg’s minister of the economy in 2012, one of his first trips abroad was to NASA’s Ames Research Center. It might have seemed strange for the tiny state’s money man to solicit meetings with cosmic researchers, but Luxembourg is always on the lookout for its next big investment. So when the center’s director, Pete Worden, began to talk about space mining—extracting water, ore, precious metals, alien time capsules, and whatever else from the likes of asteroids—Schneider listened.
“I thought this was all science fiction,” says Schneider. But Worden convinced him there was a whole cosmic economy to build, one that could extend from the moon to Mars. That same year, two guys founded a space prospecting company called Planetary Resources. And in January 2013, another, named Deep Space Industries—headquartered inside NASA’s Ames campus—was born. Soon, Schneider saw the same future they did. “The question was not if that all would happen, but when,” he says. “And there I saw a huge opportunity for Luxembourg.”
That’s why, on August 1, Luxembourg plans to adopt a new law that gives empyrean mining companies the rights to whatever they pull from asteroids—making itself an attractive place for those companies to settle and distribute their harvested riches.
Here are two things you should know about Luxembourg: One, its population is less than Milwaukee’s. Two, its per-capita GDP is second-highest in the world, according to currently available World Bank figures. In other words, the Grand Duchy is small, but the Grand Duchy is mighty.
That’s not an accident. “Luxembourg is such a small country that we always have to reinvent ourselves and take on a certain risk to succeed,” says Schneider. Back in the 1980s, the government gave SES—Europe’s first private satellite operator—the legal and budgetary boost it needed to grow into a dominant satcom provider. The state didn’t just throw money at SES: It actually owns a significant chunk of the company. Other space-centric companies sprouted up around SES, and together, they now account for 1.8 percent of the country’s nearly $60 billion GDP.
To do the same with the embryonic asteroid mining economy, Schneider needed to create incentives for mining companies to set up shop in the landlocked country. After all, Luxembourg is a few years behind the US’s own space act, which says a citizen who commercially acquires a space resource then “shall be entitled to it…to possess, own, transport, use, and sell.” Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, as well as space-habitat-maker Bigelow Aerospace, lobbied in favor of the law.
So Luxembourg lured them eastward with money (know your strengths)—200 million euros of initial support in grants, R&D money, and direct investment. In May 2016, Luxembourg committed to funding some of Deep Space Industries’ R&D, and that same month, Planetary Resources signed its own deal, too—pledging to develop some tech exclusively within the country’s borders. Luxembourg went on to invest 25 million euros in Planetary Resources, making the country a key shareholder. On top of direct investment, companies that relocate to Luxembourg or add a district office can apply not just for the country’s grants but also for those from the European Space Agency. Soon, there may even be a public-private venture capital fund.
In other words, Luxembourg is making it rain. And more than 60 companies have either benefited from its cash or hope to.
But all that investment does no good if a space mining company has no rights to its plunder. The United Nations’s Outer Space Treaty, created in 1967, suggests that rights to resources may not be rights anyone can have, legally. Its Article 2 says, “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.”
So Luxembourg—and the US, in that 2015 move—crafted loophole laws. They both say, essentially, companies are not staking claim over asteroids but merely the minerals they dig out. They’re not appropriating any bodies—just severed limbs!
It’s complicated. Perhaps the UN agreement applies only to nations, not individual citizens. And it does say that “there shall be free access to all celestial bodies,” and that space is “free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind.” Wouldn’t, then, a prohibition against asteroid mining limit those freedoms? Plus, officials wrote the treaty back when mining, and even the private space industry, was science fiction.
Luxembourg and the US are confident that anti-mining interpretations of the old agreement won’t stand in the space-faring future. So after August 1, if you get permission from Luxembourg to mine asteroids, the subsequent riches are yours. To get that OK-to-go, companies must have written permission from Luxembourg, an office there, a solid risk assessment, and major shareholders or members who have not skimmed money off the top or from terrorist groups, among other strictures. Even Luxembourg doesn’t want to let just anybody take a crack at a space rock.
But no one’s going to be doing that for a while, anyway. Schneider himself estimates it will be 20 years before private companies actually reach into asteroids. That means Luxembourg, even in its own optimistic view, is just BoyScouting—being prepared for the 2030s. Then, the miners will live (or at least occasionally work) along the banks of the country’s Alzette River and riches will rain down from orbit. And if Luxembourg is the primary backer (and, in some cases, part owner) of those asteroid-stuff-extractors? One of the planet’s smallest nations will be the solar system’s biggest player—pulling down tax revenue, return on investments, and the satisfaction that comes from controlling that future space supply chain.
Schneider isn’t shy about the country’s ambitions. “Ten years from now,” he says, even before anyone is mining anything out of the not-ground, “Luxembourgish will be the official language in space.”