The New Capital of the Private Space Industry
With its first asteroid-mining mission slated for 2020, Luxembourg is fast becoming a hub for the private space industry. Can it lead Europe to the stars?
By Elie Dolgin, May 15, 2017
In the 19th century, Luxembourg built its economy around the iron and steel industries. More than 150 years later, the small European nation is looking again to minerals as a source of economic development. But, rather than going underground, the Grand Duchy is gazing skyward.
In February 2016, the Luxembourg government announced the SpaceResources.lu initiative that would position the country as the European hub of space-resource utilization. “Space mining could really be the next big thing for Luxembourg,” says Étienne Schneider, the country’s deputy prime minister and minister for the economy. “It’s not a question of whether space mining will become a reality, it’s a question of when, and we want to be at the forefront.”
Key to the program is a legal and regulatory framework that will guarantee private companies the right to keep any minerals, water or other valuable commodities that they extract in space. Luxembourg’s law also sets out the procedures for authorizing and supervising missions to explore, extract, process and utilize space resources. It is expected that the law will go into effect by the middle of 2017.
Already, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, two of the largest players in the galactic gold rush, and both based in the United States, have started their European operations in the country. Recently, ispace, a Tokyo-based lunar robotic–exploration company also settled in Luxembourg. The government has also pledged about €200 million to support research grants and equity investments in these and other space-mining firms.
Risks reap rewards
The notion of Luxembourg becoming a global launch pad for space-rock mining might sound like pie in the sky, but the country has a long and successful history of reinventing its economy. Before the industrial revolution, Luxembourg was largely an agricultural society. The discovery of iron ore spawned a powerful steel industry that, at its height, was ranked among the largest in Europe. Then the oil crisis of the 1970s hit, prompting Luxembourg to shift focus once again, this time to financial services and, in something of a gamble, satellite technologies.
Both moves paid off. Luxembourg is now the leading private banking center in the Eurozone, the largest investment fund center in Europe and home to several of the world’s largest commercial satellite operators (See ‘Satellite Synergy.’). And although the financial sector remains the cornerstone of the economy, the aerospace industry now accounts for approximately 1.8% of Luxembourg’s gross domestic product — the highest level of any country.
“As a small country, we have always taken risks and we have always succeeded in these endeavors,” says Schneider, who has the same optimism for space mining.
From around 30 companies in Luxembourg’s space sector, there is a vast pool of talent and expertise in satellite telecommunications to draw on for the development of probes capable of extracting resources from the Moon or from the thousands of asteroids, meteoroids, comets and other near-Earth objects that pass within our solar system.
The first asteroid-prospecting missions are expected within the next three years. Eventually, celestial-mining firms hope to harvest materials that can be processed in space and then used for on-site construction, to sustain human life in space or, in the very long term, shipped back and sold on Earth.
Schneider is laying the groundwork for a national space agency. Luxembourg already partners with the European Space Agency and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration on many scientific programs (See ‘One Giant Leap for Mass Spec.’), but Schneider wants to create an agency that can fuel the business side of space activities, such as turning asteroids or the Moon into economic opportunities.
“The aim,” he says, “is not space exploration, but space utilization.” And with around 50 foreign companies and research institutes having already knocked on Schneider’s door since he announced the space-resources initiative, he says, “I think we’re on the right track.”
Luxembourg’s GovSat-1 will provide eyes in the sky for NATO and NATO-friendly nations
By the end of 2017, a satellite unlike any other will be orbiting the Earth. Positioned at 21.5° East to cover Europe, the Middle East, Africa and adjoining bodies of water, the GovSat-1 geostationary satellite will provide secure communications for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other friendly governments and multinational alliances. It’s the first time a Luxembourgish public-private partnership has ever produced a satellite purpose-built for the defense and security markets.
GovSat-1 is the product of a joint venture between the Luxembourg government and the world’s largest satellite fleet operator, SES, which is headquartered in Luxembourg’s Betzdorf Castle. Each put up €50 million, with an additional €125 million in loans, to fund the satellite and the ground infrastructure required for command-and-control services.
The satellite will use dedicated military frequencies as well as high-powered and fully steerable spot beams to help governments and multinational bodies meet defense and security needs. “We are providing some of the most advanced security features for our users,” says GovSat chief executive, Patrick Biewer, who expects the company’s satellite to last for at least 15 years.
Suitcase-Sized Mass Spec
The Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology is working with NASA to develop a compact, space-ready mass spectrometer
Whether for monitoring air quality in a spacecraft or searching for signs of life on Mars, mass spectrometers have become a stalwart of space exploration. Yet, most of these instruments remain fairly bulky, often the size of about two washing machines.
Over the last five years researchers at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) have developed a suitcase-sized device called FieldSpec (shown above) for monitoring the quality and characteristics of water supplies on Earth. Now, they are working with scientists at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to adapt the portable system for use in outer space.
The collaboration is a natural fit, says project leader Tom Wirtz, who heads the advanced instrumentation for ion nano-analytics group at LIST. “We know the technology, and the guys at NASA know the applications.”
The joint project, dubbed MS-SPACE, aims to explain some of the biggest mysteries in planetary science and astrobiology, such as the evolution of our solar system, the origin of planetary atmospheres and whether life exists on other worlds.
Luxembourg’s Innovation Is Out of This World was created by Scientific American Custom Media, a division separate from its board of editors, working in partnership with the Luxembourg Ministry of the Economy, the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology, and the Luxembourg National Research Fund.