As a new space race gathers pace, many tech executives have sold Mars as humankind’s off-Earth destiny. But they may be looking too far afield. Our most immediate chance for life-beyond-Earth lies much closer, a path likely to be blazed by far lesser-known companies.
Building colonies on the Moon will “provide a blueprint to Mars”, Nasa scientists say. The men and women who will found these lunar settlements will in all likelihood be employed by small private mining companies, not tech tycoons. Many of these companies are connected to the tiny EU nation of Luxembourg.
Amazingly, Nasa believes such Moon colonies could be established within the next four years.
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Takeshi Hakamada is one of those trying to boldly return to where humanity has set foot. This time, however, there is a much more commercial dream in mind: to scour the Moon for profitable mineral and gaseous resources, as well as life-sustaining lunar water.
Hakamada is the CEO of ispace, a private space exploration company based in Tokyo, which also has a presence in Luxembourg. It plans to complete a lunar orbit in 2020, and then attempt a soft lunar landing in 2021.
“Our first two missions will act as a demonstration of our technology. From there, we will begin to establish a high-frequency transportation service to bring customer payloads to the moon,” he says. “If we find water resources on the Moon, we can develop a whole new resource industry in space.” The discovery of a frozen water basin would be a monumental moment for our species, as it would allow humans to stay off Earth for longer periods.
Earth's nations can explore the Moon but none of them are allowed to lay claim to it (Credit: Getty Images)
Hakamada is far from alone in his cosmic ambitions. There now are 10 space-mining companies (including ispace) legally domiciled in Luxembourg since the launch of the country’s space resources law in February 2016. This was fuelled by a fund worth $223m (200m euros/£176m). For these space ventures, the Moon is one of two primary targets being considered; commercial ventures also are eyeing near-Earth asteroids for mining metallic resources (as covered in this recent story on BBC Future). Between the Moon and an estimated 16,000 near-Earth asteroids, the resources available could be rich enough to produce the world’s first trillionaire, some experts – including renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson – have said.
The current space race sped up after Luxembourg launched its 2016 law. This made it the second country in the world after the US to provide a comprehensive legal framework for the exploitation of resources beyond our planet. “Since February 2016, we interacted with almost 200 companies that have contacted us,” says Paul Zenners, a representative of Luxembourg’s ministry of economy, which runs the government’s SpaceResources.lu initiative.
Luxembourg’s 2016 entrance into the space resources race had the effect of attracting the US’s largest companies in the field
Luxembourg’s space framework has important differences to that of the US. The latter’s law requires companies to have more than 50% of US-backed equity, while Luxembourg sees no such limitation. The wealthy Grand Duchy, ranked the richest nation in the world by per capita GDP according to the IMF, also has been accused by some of being a tax haven. It does offer a range of tax incentives and benefits, including extremely low rates for the repatriation of capital.
Luxembourg’s 2016 entrance into the space resources race had the effect of attracting the US’s largest companies in the field, including Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, a US-based firm that counts Sir Richard Branson and Google co-founder Larry Page as backers. Planetary Resources, one of the oldest players in the private space industry, sold a $28m (£21.2m) stake to the Grand Duchy. The exact equity amount has never been disclosed, but the firm’s chief acknowledges Luxembourg is one of the biggest investors.
Luxembourg’s Space Resources Act opened a floodgate for investment, with the ministry of economy now saying the space industry accounts for some 1.8% of the nation’s GDP, the highest ratio of any EU country.
Despite the investment, space mining is an industry that simultaneously highlights ambiguous legal pitfalls.
Virgin Galactic - which hopes to launch spacecraft from its White Knight aircraft - is one company now linking up with Luxembourg (Credit: Getty Images)
“It is not clear whether international space law allows for a country to grant property rights to natural resources extracted in space,” a study by Allen and Overy, a Luxembourg-based law firm, found. After the US approved the world’s first space mining law in 2015, Russia was one of the countries to raise objections.
To understand the ambiguity of space, we have to go back to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), a Cold War-era accord prohibiting the national appropriation of celestial bodies. Essentially, space is treated as common ground, not unlike Antarctica. Military development is extremely limited in space by the OST, which was signed by 105 countries. In order to pull off President Trump's recently trumpeted Space Force, Washington would have to exit the OST, further isolating the US.
But the OST noticeably overlooks any reference to the ownership of resources, an omission that the US and Luxembourg have chosen to define. They’re unlikely to be the only ones; the UAE recently signed an agreement to learn from Luxembourg’s legal finesse.
Luxembourg’s law does not have the objective, purpose or effect of paving the way for any national appropriation of celestial bodies – Paul Zenners
“Luxembourg’s law on the exploration and use of space resources addresses this [omission] and gives clarity on a national level, as a first step to enable space resources activities,” says Zenners. “Luxembourg’s law does not have the objective, purpose or effect of paving the way for any national appropriation of celestial bodies. Only the ownership of space resources is addressed in the legal framework, which also lays down the regulations for the authorisation and the supervision of missions.”
Luxembourg’s small size may help it take the lead in this new goldrush for the riches of space. “Along with the United States, Luxembourg has proven to be a forward-thinking country, and their success will enable private companies to conduct deep space missions,” says Bill Miller, CEO of US-based Deep Space Industries, which uses Luxembourg as its European headquarters.
The debate may not hit fever pitch for some time: space-mining companies have had a habit of touting overambitious launch schedules. But if the profits start rolling in one day in the near future, it’s probably a prudent bet that Luxembourg will be somewhere in the picture.
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