Ross and Schneider
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Luxembourg Deputy Prime Minister Étienne Schneider shake hands after signing an agreement May 10 regarding space cooperation between the countries. Credit: LSA

WASHINGTON — The governments of the United States and Luxembourg, two of the biggest proponents of space commercialization, signed an agreement May 10 that could lead to greater cooperation between the two countries on a variety of space initiatives.

At a ceremony in Luxembourg, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Luxembourg Deputy Prime Minister Étienne Schneider signed a memorandum of understanding on space cooperation. That agreement, the Luxembourg government said in a statement, will “serve as a vehicle to establish a more formal dialogue, sharing of expertise and exchange of information” between the countries.

The agreement is intended to support cooperation on a wide range of topics, from space exploration and scientific research to space situational awareness and space commerce. “I don’t think there’s very much at all that’s been left out of this agreement,” Ross said.

Neither Ross nor Schneider said what topics would be addressed first under the agreement, but both emphasized their interest in supporting the growth of the space industries in their countries.

That has been a priority for the last few years in Luxembourg, which started the initiative in 2016 to attract startups in the emerging space resources field, such as asteroid mining companies. That initiative has since expanded to attract a wide range of entrepreneurial space ventures, and led to the establishment of a national space agency and a fund to invest in space companies.

“As a result of our space resources initiative, about 20 companies have already decided to join us over here in Luxembourg and put their European headquarters in Luxembourg,” Schneider said at the ceremony. The space industry accounts for about two percent of the country’s gross domestic product, he said, although that is driven primarily by the presence of global satellite operator SES.

One area of attention, Ross suggested, may be in legal issues related to commercial space activities. “It is really time to think through the commercial law needs of the space community,” he said, but didn’t elaborate on specific topics.

Both the United States and Luxembourg have passed laws about space resources, with the United States enacting the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act in 2015 and Luxembourg following suit with its own space resources law in 2017. Both countries’ laws grant companies ownership of resources they extract from celestial bodies, although the American law applies only to those companies with majority American ownership, versus the Luxembourg law that applies to any companies operating in the country.

Space resource legislation, though, has become less of a priority given the financial problems faced by startups in the field. Deep Space Industries, one such startup, was acquired by Bradford Space in January after pivoting to smallsat technologies. Planetary Resources was acquired by a cryptocurrency company, ConsenSys, in October 2018, and its future plans remain unknown.

The Luxembourg government, through, had invested 12 million euros ($13.5 million) in Planetary Resources in 2016. However, it lost nearly all that investment when the company was purchased by ConsenSys.

Schneider alluded to that in response to a question at a brief press conference following the ceremony. “For sure, there will be further setbacks. There will always be setbacks if you’re going into a completely new field,” he said.

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...