Schneider New York
Etienne Schneider, deputy prime minister of Luxembourg, speaking in New York June 5 about his country's space resources initiative. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

NEW YORK — The government of Luxembourg expects to soon have in place both a new national space law and a national space agency, two key steps in the small European country’s outsized contribution to the development of a space resources industry.

In presentations at an event here June 5, government officials said both the new law and the new agency are key elements of the country’s strategy to become a leading nation in asteroid mining.

“We found out that, in order to be successful, and in order to help businesses to develop in this sector, it needs several commitments,” said Etienne Schneider, deputy prime minister of Luxembourg and minister of finance, in remarks at the meeting.

Those commitments, he said, include a “fully committed” government, a legal framework, research and development funding and access to venture capital. “I think that Luxembourg can offer all this,” he said.

The next major milestone for the country’s space resources initiative is passage of a new national space law. That bill, he said, “will be voted on this month or, at the latest, next month.”

The legislation is patterned on the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, which includes provisions that grant U.S. companies the rights to resources they extract from asteroids or other celestial bodies. One difference, Schneider said, will be that while the U.S. law requires companies to be based in the country, Luxembourg’s protections would cover companies regardless of their location. “We don’t really care where the money comes from,” he said.

The bill also creates a system for the authorization and continuing supervision of commercial space activities that are regulated by the country. The lack of similar policy in the United States for “non-traditional” commercial space activities like asteroid mining — required, many argue, in order to comply with Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty — has been an issue debated in the last few years.

Mario Grotz, director general for the research, intellectual property and new technologies directorate of the Luxembourg Ministry of Finance, said that language was included in order to comply with those treaty obligations. “It’s very clear that we are not anymore in the Wild West and we would not like to act as space cowboys, so we take this very seriously,” he said.

Luxembourg is also in the process of creating a national space agency, Schneider said. The country is a member of the European Space Agency but has not previously had its own national agency. However, he said the agency will be structured differently than those in other countries.

“This space agency will not be a copy of NASA or ESA, but it will be a space agency whose only focus on the commercial use of space resources,” he said. It will be set up a public-private partnership between the government and private funds.

“One of the main pillars of the space agency should be the development of an investment fund,” Grotz said. The government is studying two different approaches for that fund. One would be a single fund, with government and private contributions, offering both seed funding to startups and venture capital investment to more advanced companies. A second approach would be to establish a seed fund only, and have the government invest in other venture capital funds that could support space resource companies. The former approach, he said, is the one currently preferred.

Along with the new law and new space agency is a commitment by the government to make an initial investment of 200 million euros ($225 million) in the overall space resources initiative. Two U.S.-based asteroid mining companies, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, have partnered with the country. More recently, the country has signed agreements with ispace, a Japanese company participating in the Google Lunar X Prize; and Blue Horizon, a spinoff of German space company OHB working on life support technologies.

Luxembourg’s interest in space resources has stuck many in the broader space industry as quixotic, given that even companies involved in this sector acknowledge it will be years before they are able to extract resources from asteroids, ranging from water to fuel spacecraft to precious metals.

Government officials said they see a potential in space resources similar to satellite communications. In the 1980s, the country backed the development of SES, a satellite operator that is today one of the largest in the world. “At the beginning, we took a lot of risk, but I think this risk really paid off,” Grotz said. “Today, we are in quite a similar situation with the space resources initiative. We really think that the commercialization of space resources will have great potential, and we are fully committed to leverage this.”

Schneider said he believed that this initiative will make the country a world leader in the space industry. “I’m pretty sure that, in some 10 years from now, the official language of space will be Luxembourgish.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...