Editor's Note: This story is publishing in partnership with the Financial Times. It originally appeared in the series Robots: Friend or Foe.
The first commercial mission to harvest resources from asteroids could be launched within five years, as Luxembourg’s government works on joint missions with two U.S. space research companies to prospect for water and minerals in outer space through robotic missions.
Since Luxembourg said in February that it was seeking to become a global center for asteroid mining, events have moved rapidly, according to Etienne Schneider, the deputy prime minister. “Space agencies and companies from around the world have contacted us about collaboration,” he said.
Luxembourg is working on a joint mission with California-based Deep Space Industries called Prospector-X, a small and experimental spacecraft that would develop the technologies that might be used to send robotic explorers to investigate asteroids after 2020.
The Grand Duchy is also in the final stages of negotiations with another U.S. group, Planetary Resources, whose shareholders includes Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google owner Alphabet, Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson and a host of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
Rather than launching a single large and expensive spacecraft, an operational prospecting mission might involve a swarm of small probes no larger than a briefcase, bristling with cameras, spectrometers and other scientific instruments—and using artificial intelligence to communicate with each other as they scan an asteroid to analyze its composition.
Prospector-X will be built in Luxembourg. Among other things, it will test the ability of high-performance electronic components to withstand the harsh radiation encountered during long periods in space—and assess a 3D imaging and navigation system developed at the University of Luxembourg, said Grant Bonin, DSI chief engineer.
“Luxembourg makes a huge difference by stepping in,” said Rick Tumlinson, DSI chairman. “It immediately shatters the myths that asteroid mining is either the fantasy of a wealthy Silicon Valley cabal or an imperialist American plot to take over the solar system.”
The country is devoting substantial financial resources to develop asteroid mining, through its national investment bank and government research and development grants, though Schneider declined to say how much.
In addition to developing technology, Luxembourg also wants to establish a legal basis for exploiting space resources in both domestic and international law. “I am really interested in triggering discussion at the UN about a new Space Act to supplement or replace the 1967 Outer Space Treaty,” Schneider said.
Although the particular aspect that has caught the popular imagination is exploiting rich deposits of precious metals such as gold and platinum, everyone involved in the nascent industry agrees that prospect lies well in the future.
The first resource to be mined will be ice, to provide water for the space industry. “Water plays a profound role in so many activities in space—and it will be far less expensive to produce it there than to bring it up from Earth,” said Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources chief executive. “Water . . . will define the 21st century in space, as oil defined the 20th century on Earth.”